A compendium of commonly confused words (part 1 of 3)

We've all been there. You know what you want to express, but when you go to write it down, you feel suddenly immobile. Tugging thoughtfully on your lip, you look abruptly heavenward, asking yourself, "Wait, should it be spelled 'affect' or 'effect'?" Yep, we've all been there.

The English language is rife with super-fun word pairs in which one word is commonly confused with the other. Some of them simply sound alike. Others have overlapping or similar meanings that are hard to keep straight. But the fact is, so many people confuse them that it's difficult to learn what's correct. So, for your edification and reading pleasure, I've racked my brain to think of several of the most commonly confused word pairs. I hope you enjoy. And I hope that at some point, I can save you a little lip tugging and heaven staring.

Before we proceed, however, if — as you proceed down this list — you find yourself saying, "Daaaayuuum, I mess up a ton of these all the time," I forbid you to feel bad about yourself. Because you're not alone. Truly, these are some of the most commonly confused words in the English language. So the more that people read this list with a facial expression that wavers somewhere between confusion, consternation, and constipation, the better I'll feel — because it will mean I've made a damn good, and ostensibly genuinely helpful, list of common errors.

FYI, since the list I've planned has a rather obnoxious number of components, I will be covering this topic in installments. After all, I don't intend to overwhelm. That said, you may commence the brow furrowing now.

  • adverse/averse: If you are "averse" to something, you have a strong opposition to or dislike of it. By her sour expression, you could tell that she was averse to the music playing on the radio. "Adverse" means "preventing success or development; harmful; unfavorable." The music was it Nickelback? had a profoundly adverse effect on her mood.
  • affect/effect: In common usage, an "effect" is a result of an action or another cause. The bug repellent had the desired effect of keeping away the mosquitoes. It can also be used as a verb. Generous use of the bug repellent effected fewer mosquito bites for all of us. When used as a verb, "affect" means to have an effect on (the bug bites began to affect my ability to focus on anything other than itching), move someone emotionally (when Tom offered me his bug spray, his kindness affected me profoundly), or pretend to feel something (she affected a lack of concern for the impending mosquito swarm, but in reality she was severely panicked). It helps to remember that "effect" is most commonly used as a noun, while "affect" is most commonly used as a verb.
  • aw/awe: "Aw" is a charmingly old-fashioned expression commonly used when regarding something adorable and/or sweet. Aw, what an adorable baby squirrel. Adding additional Ws (e.g., "awwww") just draws it out. "Awe" is a feeling of wonderment after seeing something — you know — AWEsome. After realizing that a fairly massive pack of baby squirrels had made a home in the back corner of the garage, I felt a considerable sense of awe. 
  • bawl/ball: If you are "bawling," you are crying like a baby. If someone "bawls" you out, they give you a serious talking-to. A "ball" is an object you can throw, catch, kick, or otherwise relocate. If you say someone is "balling you out," I will be compelled to imaging them pelting you with an assortment of spherically shaped throwing articles. 
  • complimentary/complementary and compliment/complement: A "compliment" is a nice thing you say about someone. She was complimentary about his new haircut, vastly preferring it to the parted-in-the-middle mullet he'd worn for the past decade. A "complement" is something that completes or matches something else. The complementary colors looked nice on the bedspread, which itself served as an effective complement to the rest of the room's decor.
  • continual/continuous: "Continuous" refers to something that is unceasing and uninterrupted. Things that are merely "continual," however, don't need to be continuous; they can simply be repeated. This one's near and dear to my heart, given that well-embraced proposal boilerplate at my old company was oddly fond of referring to the fact that our service team would bless the client with "continuous communication." Did we *really* want to give the impression that we were never, ever, ever going to shut up? No, we didn't, because "continual communication" is much more desirable than "continuous communication." (Shout out to my good friend and mentor Bill Danielson, who continually makes this point in his noble fight against careless usage. Fight on, brother.)
  • discreet/discrete: "Discreet" most commonly means prudent, careful, or circumspect in one's actions or speech. He was discreet about the fact that he'd forgotten to wear underwear that day. "Discrete" means individually separate or distinct. As I peered at the shadowy mountain range through the rain, I was at last able to make out discrete mountains. 
  • e.g./i.e.: People can never seem to keep these straight. So, once and for all, "e.g." comes from the latin exempli gratia and means "for example," and "i.e." comes from the latin id est and means "that is." In a list giving illustrative examples: I love fruit (e.g., apples, berries, cantaloupe). In a statement expanding upon or explaining an idea: I ate shit (i.e., catapulted over the top of my bicycle and landed squarely on my face). Also, inside your parenthetical list/explanation, "e.g." and "i.e." must ALWAYS be followed by a comma. Finally, NEVER use "etc." at the end of an "e.g." list. The "etcetera" is already implied, given that "e.g." denotes something that's a partial, representative list.
  • faze/phase: "Faze" is always a verb, and "phase" is most commonly a noun. "Faze" means to disturb or disconcert. Oddly enough, the bear sighting didn't faze her. "Phase" typically refers to a specific time period or stage in development. She was in that semi-idiotic, quasi-fearless phase many people go through in their late teens or early 20s. Fortunately, the bear wasn't fazed either.
  • less/fewer: Whenever I call this one out, people tend to adopt supremely annoyed expressions. But correct is correct, and so I insist on explaining. "Less" should be used when referring to things that have mass or weight (literally or figuratively). "Fewer" should be used when referring to things that you can count. As time went on, he found himself showing his girlfriend less affection. While he felt less happy, he also felt the need to buy her fewer presents. The less he cared, the fewer times he bothered to see her. In their interactions, he used less honesty and fewer kind words. 

Check back next week for the next installment of my list, when we will tackle thrilling word-pair confusion such as "nauseated/nauseous," "premier/premiere," "reactionary/reactive," and "stalactites/stalagmites." You know you're already excited.

Finally, this seems like a perfect opportunity to ask: is there a particularly confusing word pair that you'd like to see explained? If yes, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me a message. I'll take requests if you've got them.