No matter how many spellings you learn, punctuation rules you master and grammar guides you read, it is still easy to make mistakes by using the wrong word, especially in cases where two words look or sound very similar. This is a particularly common problem due to the modern computer spelling and grammar check, which will pick up spelling errors and missing punctuation, but will not be able to detect that you have used the wrong word in a sentence.
Commonly confused words are often homophones (words that are spelled differently but sound the same) or just complex words with similar spellings. Often writers can be concentrating so hard on remembering how to spell a word correctly that they completely fail to notice that it isn’t the right word to use! We’ve chosen some commonly confused word groups and some funny, misspelled signs to help you avoid making the same mistakes in your own writing.
By, buy, bye and bi
This is a typical group of homophones – the words all sound the same but have completely different uses in the English language. They are commonly confused, as you can see from this embarrassing used-car company sign.
Just remember: by means next to, or may be used to describe how something is done.
For example: The cat is sitting by the fire. Or, turn on the television by pressing the green button.
Buy is a verb, meaning to purchase something.
For example: I am going to buy some chicken for dinner.
Bye is an abbreviation of the word ‘goodbye’, used when bidding somebody farewell.
For example: “Bye!” shouted Peter, as he ran down the drive.
Bi is a prefix added to some words to imply the sense of half or of a pair– much in the same way as the prefix ‘semi’.
For example: The festival takes place biannually.
There, their and they’re
This is perhaps the number one most commonly confused group of homophones, because all three words are used extremely frequently in the English language.
There is the trickiest one to remember, as it has two meanings: it might denote place, or can be used in the phrases ‘there is’ and ‘there are’.
For example: The shop is over there. Or, are there any apples left?
Their is used to denote plural ownership.
For example: They are doing their homework, at their house.
They’re is an abbreviation of the phrase ‘they are’, and can only be used in this context.
For example: They’re going swimming because they’re bored.
Other commonly misused word pairs
Look out for these other frequently misused word pairs and take extra care when writing them to make sure you have chosen the right word!
- Your (belonging to you) and you’re (you are).
- Accept (to take) and except (apart from).
- Affect (verb) and effect (noun).
- Cite (to refer to), site (location) and sight (vision).
- Desert (e.g. Sahara) and dessert (e.g. bannoffee pie!).
- Its (belonging to it) and it’s (it is).
- Practise (verb) and practice (noun).
- Stationary (still) and stationery (office supplies).
- Who’s (who is) and whose (belonging to who).