Commonly Misused Words

English is a language with many confusing words that are commonly misused. Even native speakers will probably recognize some of the commonly misused words on this list. Are you using them correctly in your writing?

Use of an incorrect word, such as illicit in place of elicit, can obscure the meaning of your writing. Whether it’s a blog post, a story, a personal narrative, or something technical like a court transcript – don’t embarrass yourself! Commonly misused words are one of the most prevalent errors that proofreaders look find and correct.

If you’re a writer and want to avoid these written blunders, or if you’re a professional proofreader who needs to spot errors with precision, here’s a short list of ten words to be on the lookout for. For each word, I explain the actual meaning of the word, the difference between the misused version, and give examples of sentences where the word is used correctly.

I hope this is helpful to you!

If you’re ever in doubt about the actual meaning of a word, check definitions in a dictionary like Merriam-Webster (or whatever your style guide recommends).

Ten Commonly Misused Words

 1. a while / awhile

Similarly, both of these words describe vague amounts of time. Beyond that, they have completely different meanings and are used differently in sentences.

A while is a phrase that refers to a period in time.

  • The meeting lasted for a while.
  • I won’t know the outcome for a while.

In contrast, awhile is an adverb that means “for a short time.” We use adverbs to modify or describe other words such as adjectives, nouns, verbs, or other adverbs. Notice what awhile is modifying in each of these examples.

  • He stayed around awhile. 
  • She’s been there awhile.

A personal tip -I find that I use a while (two words) much more often in my writing.

2. a part / apart

A part is two words. The first word, a, is an article – it refers specifically to the part. You can have a part in something, take a part of something, even record a part of something.

  • I have a part in the production of this year’s play.
  • I recorded a part of last night’s concert.

The single word apart is very different. This adverb describes things that are separated. In each of the example sentences below, notice which word or phrase apart describes.

  • Those two cities are more than fifty miles apart.
  • The relationship fell apart.
  • I took apart the model airplane last night.
  • The books have been ripped apart!

Still confused? Writing Explained has a quiz you can take on your knowledge of the distinction between these two words.

3. capital / capitol

I see this error a lot when I’m editing and proofreading travel writing! Travel bloggers often write about visiting capital cities complete with photos of the capital buildings. Wait – full stop! It is the capital city, but it is also the capitol building.

Capital is an adjective as well as a noun. The noun capital can refer to money, while the adjective capital can describe a city or a letter.

  • The women put a lot of capital into starting up that business.
  • In Spanish, you do not use a capital letter at the beginning of the name of a language.
  • The capital city of Malaysia is Kuala Lampur.

The word capitol has only one specific meaning: the building that a government body meets in. 

  • The capitol building in Jefferson City has a mural painted inside the dome.
  • I took the ten o’clock tour of the capitol.
  • Congress was not in session when we toured the capitol.

4. bare / bear

According to Merriam-Webster, bare is an adjective that refers to lacking clothing, lacking tools or weapons, or generally being exposed. Read these example sentences and notice what bare is describing.

  • His arms were bare up to the elbows.
  • Vultures had picked at the bones until they were bare.
  • He felt the need to bare it all during the session.

A bear, of course, is an animal. A big, cute, furry, possibly cuddly but actually scary mammal. This is a photo I took of a bear I saw in Olympic National Park in 2016!

5. complement / compliment

Complement is an adjective used in a similar way as complete. In these examples, the word loosely refers to making something (a noun) complete.

  • The new bassist really complements the rhythm section.
  • The curtains complement the room very well.

A compliment, on the other hand, is a noun, a thing – an expression that conveys praise or respect.

  • I gave the author many compliments on the story.
  • I am sometimes uncomfortable when people give me compliments.

Compliment can also be used as a verb, the action being to make an expression that conveys praise or respect.

  • I complimented the chef on the outstanding meal.
  • She couldn’t help but compliment her brother’s painting. 

6. conscience / conscious

I commonly see these two words used interchangeably. It’s understandable, considering they both loosely refer to morals or states of right or wrong. There is a difference, though, namely that one is a noun and one is an adjective.

One’s conscience (noun) is their personal, inner morals. 

  • His conscience wouldn’t let him do that, though.
  • My conscience wasn’t going to rest until I made it right with her.

Being conscious (adjective) means being aware of yourself and the world. 

  • They try to be conscious of their carbon footprint.
  • She wasn’t conscious enough of her employees’ needs.

Oftentimes, our conscience exists in our conscious mind – but it also sometimes exists in our unconscious mind. 🙂

7. work out / workout

When written as two words, work out is used as a verb. To work out is the action of working out, either an exercise workout (see what I did there?) or some other it that needs working with. 

  • Are you two going to work out that issue?
  • I am going to the gym to work out today.
  • I had to spend a long time working out that last math problem.

A workout, on the other hand, is a noun referring to exercise or some other form of physical activity. In this case, a workout is a thing.

  • My workout today consisted of weightlifting and cardio.
  • That hike isn’t much of a workout, it’s more like a gentle stroll.

8. hear / here

Hear is a verb that refers to the perception of sound.

  • I could hear the subtle differences in the birds’ songs.
  • I can’t hear anything over this music! 

Here functions in three ways: as an adjective, as an adverb, and as a noun.

As an adjective, here is used for emphasis.

  • My favorite book is this one right here.
  • This map here should show us the way.

As an adverb, here most commonly refers to a place or the current time (now).

  • Turn here to get there quicker.
  • The appointment is here already.

The noun here refers to a location or a place.

  • Everyone is here.
  • I am going to be here every day.

Bonus: Here, here! Or hear, hear? Check out this post on the Grammar Party blog for some grammar nerdy tidbits!

9. in to / into

As two words, in to generally works the same as the phrase in order to.

  • The painters came in to take advantage of the sale. (The painters came in order to take advantage of the sale.)
  • They brought her in to interpret the symbols. (They brought her in order to interpret the symbols).

Into as one word refers is a preposition. Remember that prepositions link words together. In the case of into, it will link a noun with a place.

  • Where did I put my keys? Ah, into my pocket.
  • She jumped straight into the deep end.

10. past / passed

It’s easy to confuse these two words because they both involve time.

Past can be used as an adjective, noun, adverb, or preposition.

As an adjective or a noun, the past refers to a time period that has already happened.

  • My mistakes are in my past.
  • In past years, she was the CEO of that company.

As an adverb, Merriam-Webster defines past as “so as to reach and go beyond a point.”

  • An airplane flew past.
  • He ran past.

Feel like those example sentences are clunky? I agree. In that case, we use past as a preposition, linking an event or an object to a time in the past. This is a subtle difference than using past as an 

  • An airplane flew past us in the sky.
  • He ran past the finish line.

Passed is a verb in its past participle form (it’s in past tense). Use this word to describe the act of passing (or not passing) in the past.

  • I passed the test last week.
  • She passed a lot of slow cars on the highway this morning.

I think that’s enough for today! This is a small list of ten commonly misused words that I compiled from errors I have seen in client work as well as errors I’ve made on my own. I like reading lists like this because it keeps these easy-to-miss errors fresh in my mind. I’ll be sure to post more lists like this in the future, so if you find things like this helpful as well, subscribe to Writer’s Bloom to get updates!

  • Did you recognize any words on this list that you’ve personally misused?
  • What words do you find difficult to use and remember correctly?

Leave suggestions of words you find confusing or ones that you commonly see misused in the comments below – I’d love to know what you think so I can include them in a future post!

Want more grammar nerding fun? See my list of Ten Places to Get Online Proofreading Training, including worksheets, games, and tests.

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