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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Writing Rose Proofreading and Editing Service Testimonials

Are proofreading and editing services important? The answer to that question is undoubtedly YES. There are a multitude of reasons why you should hire a professional proofreader. Your writing may also benefit from editing – I talk about proofreading versus editing (and why you might not need both) on another post in this blog.

If you’re still on the fence, take a look at these testimonials from actual customers of Writing Rose, my professional proofreading, editing, and writing company. Writing Rose has all of our testimonials displayed on our website – this collection is feedback from clients who specifically booked proofreading or editing services.

We think you’ll agree with the clients here – Writing Rose will make your documents clean and professional, ready to be published and put before your readers.

What are editing and proofreading services?

Proofreaders are detail-oriented writing experts who ensure that your message gets across to readers in the way that you intend: clear, well-formatted, and free of errors.

Editors are writing critics who are on your side – they exist to help you express your ideas and write your words, but better. Want more detailed information about this? Take a look at this post over here.

Why should you hire a proofreader or an editor? In this digital age where the attention of the masses is constantly changing, writing and the printed word is still an important and lasting medium of expression. It’s also a great way to market your products or services. If you want to express yourself clearly, build trust in your brand, and/or make sales, make sure your writing doesn’t suffer from unintentional errors – no matter how small they seem to be.

Any piece of writing that will be read by any number of important people will benefit from editing and/or proofreading services. 

  • Novels, short stories, and narratives
  • Articles for periodicals and journals
  • Business documents, internal documents, and reference materials
  • Advertisements
  • Catalogs
  • Websites and website content
  • Blog posts
  • Online stores and product descriptions
  • Social media posts
  • Cookbooks and recipes
  • Ebooks
  • Dissertations, theses, essays, and papers
  • Course materials, presentations, course syllabi

When you’re ready to hire affordable online English proofreading and editing services, make sure you get the best – contact the professionals at Writing Rose.

Writing Rose Editing and Proofreading Service Testimonials

[Writing Rose] helped me with not just proofreading and editing the manuscript of my first book. She also did my resume. Both have turned out much better. Easier to read, understand, and decreased my stress! I highly recommend that new writers, performance artists, and anyone from any background hire [Writing Rose]. Hiring a professional like her will help decrease your work load and give your work that professional finishing touch you need. 

Martika Daniels

[Writing Rose] was wonderful to work with. She provided a very thorough edit and review of my personal narrative. Her remarks were very constructive and helpful as well. She completed the order sooner than I expected, which gave me more time to go through her changes. I am very thankful to her for providing such great feedback!

Audrey Barba

[Writing Rose] was excellent. She was responsive to specific needs I had and quickly turned around revisions.

S. Silvester

Great experience, thank you so much! Tried another editor and it didn’t go well. These edits added value and really captured the story I was striving to tell. Would definitely use again. Thank you!

Soraya Morris

It was such a pleasure working with [Writing Rose]. She did a great job, going the extra mile with super fast delivery. I can highly recommend her and will soon book her again.😍👍

Gabi Rupp, LeanJumpStart

[Writing Rose] did a wonderful job on my personal statement. She has a way with words that will help me stand out in my grant application! The turnaround time was very fast too. 10/10 would pay for her assistance again, and recommend her for your proofreading needs.

Britta Nova

Hire Professional Proofreading and Editing Services

It’s easy to get your documents edited and proofread. Writing Rose will hook you up with a word expert who is perfect for your project. If you’ve got questions about how the process works, check out this page. Once you’re ready to inquire, contact us with this form.

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Editing versus Proofreading – What’s The Difference?

Companies like Writing Rose offer separate services for professional editing and proofreading. But how does a writer like you know if they need editing services, proofreading services, or both? Is there a difference between editing and proofreading?

Whether you’ve been writing and publishing for years or are simply a hobbyist looking to get your ideas out to the world, you want your writing to be completely free of errors in the eyes of your readers.

It can be difficult for a writer to edit and proofread their own writing. As the author of the ideas, you know what you are trying to say, so you are not always able to see small errors that may confuse people who aren’t inside your head. This is where professional editing and proofreading services come in.

So what is the difference between editing services and proofreading services? For most people outside of the professional writing industry, what they think of as proofreading actually refers to the process of editing. Confused? Don’t worry! By reading this post, you will know the similarities and differences between editing and proofreading services. Then, you can examine your needs as a writer to know which services are appropriate for your document. At the end, I’ll show you how you can hire a professional proofreader or editor.

Bloggers, novelists, journalists, cookbook authors, copywriters, administrative assistants, company executives, doctoral students – to name a few – all use professional editing and proofreading services to different degrees. This article will help you decide which services are right for you.

What does editing look like?

An editor makes your writing shine. They help you write your own words, but better. Your editor is a proactive supporter of your voice, offering suggestions and alternatives that help you improve the overall readability and quality of your writing.

Here are some things a good editor might do for you:

  • Explain possibly confusing ideas and passages, offering alternative interpretations so that the author can clarify their ideas
  • Point out where background knowledge might be missing and more explanations could be necessary
  • Ask questions when the meaning of the text is unclear
  • Correct inconsistencies, such as in the spelling of names and places or in the descriptions of physical objects
  • Eliminate redundancies, such as when something has been described more than once or an idea has been brought up over and over
  • Correct for the appropriate use of passive voice and active voice
  • Comment on the use of language and tone as appropriate for the intended audience (for example, use of slang may not be appropriate on a blog post intended to be read by retired persons, but could add relevancy to one aimed at people in their early 20s)
  • Ensure use of appropriate language and the use of slang and dialects
  • Include conscious and inclusive language

Editing Example

To give you an idea of what editing could look like in a document, check out this example. In this blog post for a travel website, the author is telling a story about a hike. The author’s intention is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind that will inspire them to go on the same hike. Knowing this, the editor is looking for good storytelling elements such as strong imagery and a believable timeline. In one paragraph, the author rushes through part of the timeline, which could possibly confuse the reader.

In this case, the editor has inserted a simple comment to the author noting the break in the timeline. From there, the author can decide how to proceed.

What does proofreading look like?

Proofreading is the final search for errors, the last step before a document is published. It’s a fine-toothed comb: seeking out the smallest and slightest spelling errors, punctuation mistakes, commonly misused words, and incorrect formatting.

A proofreader goes through the document and corrects these errors, however, they do not make any suggestions or changes to the text except where a language rule is broken or the sentence does not make sense. 

Overall, proofreading is a faster and less intensive service, and this means it is also less expensive! However, just because it’s less intensive than editing doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Writing that is going to be published in any format should be completely free of errors so that the author’s message is conveyed the way they intend, clearly and completely. 

Here are some things a proofreader will do for you:

  • Fix spelling and grammar mistake
  • Correct typos
  • Query obviously confusing or repetitive passages (but not offer suggestions for how to correct them – that’s an editor’s job!)
  • Ensure consistency in spelling of proper nouns such as character or place names and the numbering of figures or images
  • Cross-reference the table of contents, index, appendices, footnotes, and endnotes
  • Adhere to style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, MLA, and/or a house style guide

Proofreading Example

Let’s look at another blog post to see an example of proofreading. Here is a summary of the corrections made:

  • Use of commas, colons, semicolons, and dashes – the rules for this are nuanced, so it’s good to have a professional look at them
  • Incorrect use of a homonym: using band instead of banned. The word processor’s spell check won’t pick up on this error!
  • Eliminated some extra spaces between words
  • Corrected abbreviations (U.S. to US, U.S.A. to USA)

What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

To really see the difference between editing services and proofreading services, let’s examine one sentence through the lens of each. This sentence is completely grammatically correct and does make sense as far as the rules of the English language. However, you can see that the order of events is a little confusing.

  • Walking through the door in a tizzy, the woman got mad at the clerk when she wasn’t able to help, bumping her toe on the edge of the table.

Because there is nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence, a proofreader wouldn’t change anything about it, nor make any comments. They’d just keep on proofreading and this sentence would be published.

To contrast, an editor would comment to the author about the order of events presented in this sentence, as well as remark about the overall delivery of the message. Here’s an example of what that might sound like:

  • The woman is acting out a number of simultaneous actions – while she is walking through the door, she is also getting mad at the clerk, as well as bumping her toe. Are all these actions happening at the same time? What happened first? Did she bump her toe on the table in reaction to something, such as her anger at the clerk?

This comment is also an example of how an editor preserves the author’s voice. Instead of rewriting the passage, the editor asks clarifying questions. This leaves creative control in the hands of the author of the work.

Who should use a proofreader?

You might be thinking to yourself, who cares about these tiny little errors that escape the eye of most people? Yes, the majority of the error in the example above would never be noticed by the average person. As I said before, the difference in the proper use of commas, colons, and semicolons is nuanced – so why should I care?

Even if it’s only by some readers, small errors are noticed. Mistakes can have an effect on the message of the writing.

Some readers might chuckle if they notice the use of a comma instead of a period as the ending punctuation mark of a sentence (a common error that proofreaders catch). If your message is serious, you might not want your message to be interrupted by someone chuckling at an easily correctable error.

As a writer, you might find it unimportant and frustrating to use the correct version of affect or effect. If you use the wrong one, most people are going to know what you mean. However, using the wrong one would make your writing lose credibility in the eyes of some readers.

While some errors are relatively harmless, others can completely change the meaning of the text. Check out these examples to see what I mean. By the way, these are all errors that spelling and grammar checks may not see, (but a human proofreader will).

Errors that obscure meaning

  • Let’s eat grandma! versus Let’s eat, grandma!

Oh my – is the author talking about cannibalism or are they telling grandma it’s time for a meal?

  • I like cooking my family and my pets versus I like cooking, my family, and my pets.

Another slightly morbid example, but the point is illustrated completely: the proper use of commas is important.

  • Let’s meat at the office after lunch versus Let’s meet at the office after lunch. 
  • I thought it was a waist of time versus I thought it was a waste of time.

Simple errors like the last two examples are incredibly common when a writer is working quickly, and since they don’t necessarily obscure the idea being conveyed, can easily be missed by the author.

A writer’s success depends on the widespread enjoyment of their work by many people. If errors in spelling, punctuation, and word usage put off some people, a writer loses credibility to potential readers. While oral language is brightened and colored by accents, dialects, and other forms of slang and inflection, published written words conform to a set of standards. Because writing is a one-way discourse, it is important that the meaning is clear the first time.

It is not important for everyone to learn the minute details of the rules of written English. That’s what proofreaders and editors are for! These writing professionals help you write your ideas, but better. A one-time investment in a service like this can have lasting impacts on how your writing is read and received. 

Any document that is intended to be read by a large number of people should be proofread by a professional. This includes novels and stories, articles, blog posts, company documents, dissertations and theses, biographies and histories, website content, press releases, catalog descriptions, recipes – and more!

If you don’t use a proofreader, you’re bound to one day get an email from a reader who points out a mistake or few you’ve missed. Professional proofreading services like Writing Rose offer package deals for clients to submit multiple documents for proofreading at a discount.

Who should use an editor? Should I hire a separate editor and proofreader?

Whether or not you should hire a separate editor and proofreader depends on what kind of document you have.

Fiction stories and novels

If you are writing fiction, you can consider going through rounds of developmental editing first. Developmental editors help you shape your story into something that people will enjoy reading by assisting in the development of the build-up, climax, and conclusion of the story.

After the book is finished, a line editor or copyeditor (such as one of the professionals at Writing Rose) will take the sentences line-by-line, making queries such as those in the examples above and making extensive suggestions to improve readability.

Once you’ve got all that situated, the proofreader ensures that no mistakes were able to make it through all those rounds of editing.

Are you looking for a developmental editor for your novel or fiction piece? A good place to start might be the member directory of the Editorial Freelancers Association, one of the largest professional associations of editors. Check the box for “Developmental/Substantive editing” to find people who specialize in that kind.

Nonfiction, articles, website content, etc.

If your document is anything other than fiction – an article, a paper, a blog post, company documents, website content, or a piece of informative or persuasive writing, to name a few examples – it is your choice whether you will first seek out editing and then proofreading, or simply go for proofreading. To make this choice, consider a few things:

  • How complex are my ideas? Do I assume a level of background knowledge in my readers? Is there anywhere that background knowledge needs to be explained?
  • Are there any cause-effect relationships that could potentially confuse the reader?
  • Do I present a timeline or an order of events that is important for understanding the overall message?

But wait – if I hire an editor and they’re good at their job, why would I also need a proofreader? Wouldn’t a good editor find all the mistakes? What’s the point of hiring a proofreader as well?

When an editor is reading a text to ensure that ideas are presented truthfully and in the correct order it becomes easy to miss small mistakes. Since the proofreader is only reading for grammatical rules, they are able to spot the tiniest of mistakes before publication. While a good editor will catch a lot of these small errors, anything that is meant to be published or widely read should still use a proofreader to ensure that it is completely error-free.

How can I hire an editor or proofreader?

All of the examples of editing and proofreading in this post come from actual client documents from Writing Rose, my professional writing, editing, and proofreading service. 

Read more about Writing Rose services here, and contact us for a custom quote for your document!

My name is Rosemary, and thank you for reading. Do you have any more questions about editing and proofreading that I didn’t answer? Something confusing or not clear? Feel free to send me an email: email and I’ll get back to you. A faster way to get a response is to leave a comment below.

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