Article Archive


Misused Words

by Nann Dunne

Alan Cooper's useful site at contains a comprehensive list of sound-alike words (homophones or homonyms) that includes many words writers misuse. This misuse of words can be difficult to overcome, because we think we're choosing the correct word. When in doubt, check it out!

Here are just a few I've encountered in my years as an editor and reader of fiction. Iím doing this short list from memory, so you can bet Iíve seen them often enough for them to have made an impression. I've added sentences to Alan's definitions to help stress the differences in the pairs of words.

1. aid - to assist. Practice will aid your learning.
aide - an assistant [usually a person]. She studied to be a legal aide.

2. affect - to change. The opinion of your peers can affect how you act.
effect - result. What effect does high heat have on water?

3. altar - raised center of worship. A golden cloth covered the altar.
alter - to change. She had to alter the pants to fit her son.

4. bare - naked. The sun burned her bare legs.
|bear - wild ursine. The polar bear is snow white.

5. boarder - lodger who gets meals, too. The family took in a boarder to make some extra money.
border - perimeter. When the speeding car crossed the state border, the police had to quit the chase.

6. bolder - more courageous, more outspoken. The woman grew bolder when no one contradicted her.
boulder - large rock. The shovel struck a boulder, which forced them to stop digging.

7. born - brought into life. Janet was born on January 1.
borne - past participle of bear; carried. She had borne hardship by herself for too many years.

8. breach - to break through. The soldiers were able to breach the weakest spot in the enemy ranks.
breech - the back part. The recoil of the cannonís breech nearly hit him.

9. cannon - big gun. The sound of cannon fire boomed across the valley.
canon - body of law. Church canon decreed that Sunday was the Sabbath.

10. capital - most important. The prisoner was condemned for murder, a capital offense.
capitol - center of government. The governor returned to the capitol building in Harrisburg. (And Harrisburg is the capital [city] of Pennsylvania.)

11. discreet - confidential. She was noted for being discreet about peopleís business.
discrete - individual. The porcelain shattered into discrete pieces when it hit the floor.

12. faze - to disconcert, to stun. The punch didnít faze the boxer at all.
phase - a part of the sequence. The teenager was going through a troubling phase.

13. hoard - a great stash. Judy kept a hoard of candy in her desk.
horde - a great many people. A horde of people rushed to the mall for the sale.

14. lead - heavy metal. A wall of lead surrounded the radioactive material.
led - guided. He led the horse through the broken trees.

15. to - toward. It was time to go to bed.
too - also. She, too, attended the concert.

Note that these are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There are many, many more on Alanís site. It is worth bookmarking. He also has links to other informative sites.

ĖĖNann Dunne
 2003, Nann Dunne

Back to Article Archive.