The Remedy of the Week: Commonly Confused Words

Each week Hannah discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she tackles some of the most commonly confused words.

One of the main reasons people hire proofreaders is because a spell checker can only go so far in ensuring a text is free from errors. Perhaps the most notable limitation of spell checkers is that, as long as a word is spelled correctly, it will not be queried even if it is the wrong word to use in that context. 

Today, I discuss some of the commonly confused words I encounter most often when proofreading.

Accept/except

Accept means to come to believe something, or to consent to receive something. Except means not including.

This confusion, of course, is best exemplified by Friends’ Ross and Rachel.

Rachel: We are never gonna happen, okay? Accept that.
Ross: Except … except that what?
Rachel: No, no, accept that.

(The One with the Prom Video)

Advice/advise

Advice is the noun:

In this blog I offer advice on commonly confused words.

Advise is the verb:

The proofreader advised them on which word to use.

This -ce/-se pattern also applies to licence (noun)/license (verb) and practice (noun)/practise (verb). Once you've learned the pattern, you should be able to remember all three!

Affect/effect

Affect is a verb meaning to make a difference to:

The changes in working hours affected all members of staff

Effect is a noun meaning the result of something:

These changes had a particular effect on staff who were parents, due to the 7 am start.

However, effect can also be a verb meaning to cause something to happen:

The boss had decided to effect a change to improve productivity.

Compliment/complement

Compliment means to praise:

Mary complimented John on his sense of style.

Complement means to accompany and enhance something:

The colours of John’s outfit complemented each other.

If something is complimentary, it is flattering or free; if something is complementary, it is harmonious.

Disinterested/uninterested

In the past impartial was the sole accepted definition of disinterested. However, only the pedantic insist on this narrow usage.

Today it is used almost as often to mean apathetic or unconcerned, just as uninterested is. Language change is completely natural, so don't worry about using disinterested instead of uninterested if you think it sounds better. Just don't use uninterested to mean impartial!

Imply/infer

Imply means to indicate something by suggestion:

I never said there would be cake ... I just heavily implied it!

Infer means to deduce something that is not explicitly stated:

He inferred from the chilly atmosphere that the two of them weren't speaking.

Stationery/stationary

Stationary means unmoving:

Joe’s car had been stationary on the motorway for several hours.

Stationery refers to writing and office materials:

Joe loves buying stationery in September.


Hannah Jones is a professional freelance proofreader and owner of The Remedy of Errors.

Visit her website at The Remedy of Errors. She can also be found on Twitter @remedyoferrorsFacebook and LinkedIn.