Spell check can't save you from yourself. You can't rely on those little squiggly red and blue lines (the blue ones for grammar issues) to save you from misusing words or even from misspelling them (since you could just end up spelling a new word from your misspelling). You have to learn proper usage to make sure you don't make gaffes that could derail your writing or make you seem like an amateur.

Don't worry though: The mistakes that you are likely making are the same ones that a lot of other people are making. Some words are so widely misused that some people may not even know they are committing an error. Here are a few of the words that are most often misused -- with the information on how to use them properly -- so you can be sure to avoid these mistakes in your writing:


They sound so similar that they are often used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. Accept is a verb that means to receive something or to allow it. Except is a preposition that means to exclude something. You may also use except as a verb.

Right: I accept that you don't want to come to my wedding because it will make you feel uncomfortable to see Lisa, except I think it's' really immature of you.


Those words that start with both "a" and "e" can be confusing! They sound almost identical when you say them, and they have similar meaning. In this case, those both words refer to influence, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. In the first case, influence is being exerted, and in the second, it's the influence itself that you're discussing.

Right: The rain did not affect the crops at all -- they are still brown and limp.

Right: The effect of the election has yet to be understood.


This one's a little trickier. Both words sound the same, but both have very specific uses. Than is used to compare something, such as "It's hotter than the Georgia asphalt." Then is used to indicate time or progression, such as "We went to the pizza parlor, then we had ice cream."

Right: That hamster on a piano is cuter than a baby panda sneezing.

Right: We had tea with the Queen, then we went on a tour of the palace.


A compliment is something nice that you say to someone else, such as "I like your sweater" or "You have really pretty eyes." A complement is something that supplements or adds value to another thing. Hot fudge can be a nice complement to a banana split. However, hot fudge cannot compliment a banana split. (Though the banana split does look delicious and probably deserves a nice compliment...)


"Allusion" is a fancy term for a reference to something else, usually a work of art like a book or a movie. "Illusion" is a fancy term for a fantasy or mirage. When you're out drinking with friends, you can make allusions to high-brow cinema and Serious Literature in order to sound smart in front of a girl, but you may be under the illusion that it actually impresses her.

Right: The short story she submitted made many allusions to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Right: The setup on stage gave the illusion that the speaker was taller than she was.


Here's another pairing that can be easily differentiated by their parts of speech (if not their meaning). Elicit is a verb, and it means to draw out something, such as to elicit a reaction. Illicit is an adjective, and it means that something is scandalous or unlawful.

Right: The sheriff was able to elicit a confession about the gang's illicit activities, including robbery and assault.

This is by far not a comprehensive list of the most often misused words. However, these words seem to pop up most frequently in writing, and learning their proper usage can help you to avoid making amateur mistakes in your writing.

What other words do you frequently misuse? Share them in the comments!

About the Author:

Alexis Bonari writes for one of the largest open databases of college funding opportunities. Specific topics like college scholarships for Hispanics are described in detail to provide multiple resources for students.

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