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Commonly Confused Words

Do you sometimes find yourself wondering what the right word to use should be? Fortunately, you are not alone. The English language is full of similar-sounding words, words that look alike, and also words that both look and sound alike.

Even a seasoned writer can get confused from time to time. If you take a few moments to study this list of commonly confused words, you may be better able to internalize some of their meanings and save yourself the trouble of looking these words up in the future.

Who or Whom?

There is one simple way to tell these two apart. The next time you are wondering whether it is more appropriate to use who or whom, remember that you should typically use who to substitute pronouns such as he, she or they, while whom should be used in place of pronouns such as him, her or them. (Note the similarity of having the words end with an “m”.)

For example:

- Who/whom stole my cookie?

Try substituting who/whom with other pronouns if it is easier for you to tell whether those are correct. Should it be “he stole my cookie” or “him stole my cookie”? From here, we can tell that the correct statement should be “he stole my cookie”, and as such, the answer is “who stole my cookie”.

- Who/whom should I trust?

Again, try using other pronouns. Should the statement be “I should trust she” or “I should trust her”? Clearly, the latter is correct. As such, the statement should be “Whom should I trust?”

Can or May?

Can and may are both auxiliary verbs (also known as helping or modal verbs). Can originates from the Old English cunnan which means “to be able”. As such, can is used in statements to denote a physical or mental ability to do something. May is instead used to express a possibility or permission.

For example:

- You can/may play the tuba.

Actually, either word could be correct in this case – depending on the meaning of the statement. The speaker may be saying that you have the ability to play the tuba, in which case can would be correct. However, if the speaker is instead granting you permission to play the tuba, then may would be correct.

Note that may tends to be more polite and is more often used in formal or semi-formal settings. If you are at a formal dinner, it might be more appropriate to say “May I have another drink?” instead of “Can I have another drink?”. At a casual party with friends though, asking “Can you pass the chips?” is generally acceptable unless your friends are pedantic grammar police.

Although can can be used in place of may in informal settings, the converse is not interchangeable. In other words, it is incorrect to use may instead of can to express the ability to do something. For instance, saying “I may swim” instead of “I can swim” comes off with a different meaning – that there is a possibility the person may swim, instead of the intended meaning that the person has the ability to swim. Thus, using may instead of can is incorrect.

Whose or Who’s?

Whose is the possessive form of “who”, just as mine is the possessive form of “me”. On the other hand, who’s is a contraction that links the words “who is” or “who has”. When you are deciding which word is correct, try substituting the word for the whole form of who’s to see if it is correct.

For example:

- I need to know who’s/whose phone this is.

Let’s assume the correct word is who’s. In that case, the statement should be “I need to know who is phone this is.”

No, that’s not correct. The statement is referring to the phone as somebody’s possession, so the correct word should be “I need to know whose phone this is.”

- Who’s/whose there?

If you substitute the word for “who is”, the statement becomes “who is there”, which is correct. The speaker is not referring to “there” as a possessive item, but rather, they are asking who is present.

Affect or Effect?

Affect and effect are homophones, meaning that they sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. The main difference between affect and effect, besides their meanings, is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. Affect means to produce a change or influence something, while effect is used to mean something brought about by a cause.

For example:

- The drought severely affected/effected our crops.

The word in this statement should be a verb, and in this case, affected is correct because the statement means to say that the drought influenced the crops. A bad crop yield would be the effect of the drought.

Most of the time, you should be able to tell whether to use affect or effect by deciding whether the word in question should be a noun or a verb. However, it is worth noting that there are exceptions to this guideline, when affect can be used as a noun and effect can be used as a verb.

In rare cases, affect may be used as a noun instead of a verb (although with a slightly different meaning from the verb affect), usually when referring to reactions or facial expressions.

- I did not think there was something wrong with her because she had perfectly normal reactions and affects yesterday.

Sometimes, effect may be used as a verb instead of a noun, to describe accomplishing something or causing something to happen – to bring something into effect.

- My new boss really effected a lot of improvement.

At first read, you may think that affected fits into this sentence, but consider that the speaker is talking about “a lot of improvement”, which is the end result of having a new boss. Since the speaker is saying that the improvement was brought about by the new boss, the correct word here is effectedCommonly Confused Words, not affected.

Let’s go back to the first example in this section. If the statement were this instead:

- The drought effected our crops severely.

then the verb effected is acceptable.


Test your understanding of the commonly confused words on this list by selecting the correct word that should be used in each statement.

- The ordeal had greatly affected/effected me.

- Do you know who’s/whose bag this is?

- Who/whom is to blame for this mess?

- I am looking for people who can/may dance the jig.

- Whoever/whomever decorated this cake did a great job!

- Your passport is in order. You can/may proceed.

- Her shouting had no affect/effect on him at all.

- Do you know who’s/whose got their bag with them?

Answers to Practice

- The ordeal had greatly affected me.

- Do you know whose bag this is?

- Whom is to blame for this mess?

- I am looking for people who can dance the jig.

- Whoever decorated this cake did a great job!

- Your passport is in order. You may proceed.

- Her shouting had no effect on him at all.

- Do you know who’s got their bag with them? 

Commonly Confused Words: Part 2


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