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Athabasca University

Words Often Confused and Misused



  • means take or agree to receive something
  • is a transitive verb so requires an object

    Will you accept his invitation to dinner? (The object is invitation.)

    He offered his apologies, which I accepted.

    (The object is apologies.)

    I accept your right to express your opinion, but I don’t accept the manner in which you express it. (The first object is your right and the second is the manner.)


  • means excluding or all but this
  • is a conjunction or preposition (as in with the exception of )

    Everyone except Gordon voted in favour of the resolution.

    Except for Brian, we all caught a nasty cold while on holiday.

    I’ll do anything for the baby except change her soiled diapers.

Adverse - Averse


  • means contrary, hostile to or hurtful, injurious to or unfavourable to
  • is an adjective

    Adverse weather conditions prevented the climbers from reaching the summit.

    Recent research claims that television has an adverse effect on children.

    It’s an adverse job market out there. There is little chance of finding a job without at least a high school diploma.


  • means opposed, disinclined, unwilling to
  • is an adjective

    Most of the staff was averse to the introduction of voice-mail.

    I was averse to the idea of flying down to Calgary; it struck me as a needless waste of money when taking a car is so much cheaper.

    Mary seemed averse to my staying the night.

Affect - Effect


  • means to influence, to have an effect upon, to pretend
  • is a verb

    That television affects children adversely is indisputable as far as some researchers are concerned.

    Jeremy affects the manners of a gentleman, hoping that he’ll pass as one.

    We’ve noticed that the wind affects the children’s behaviour: they are quite quarrelsome on windy days.


  • can be used as a noun or a verb
  • as a noun, means a result, or a consequence
  • as a verb, means to produce or to bring about

    That movie has had quite an effect on me: I feel inspired to make some important changes in my life. (noun)

    Television has an adverse effect not only on children but also on adults.

    The treatment worked well and effected a complete cure. (verb)

Alternate - Alternative


  • means to take turns or succeed each other by turns
  • can be used as a verb or an adjective

    I know you want (add to spend) more time with your family. We can work alternate weeks if you like; you work one week, I work the next. (adjective)

    The manager said we could alternate our weeks; you work one week, I work the next. (verb)

    I can alternate with Peter on alternate weekends. (verb and adjective)


  • means having the choice of two things
  • can be used as a noun or adjective

    Many young people can neither function nor succeed in the traditional school system. Educators need to work out an alternative for them. (Noun: anything but the traditional system is the alternative.)

    Educators are working on an alternative school programme for students who have difficulty functioning and succeeding in the traditional system. (adjective)

    The High Level Bridge will close for six months while workers repair it. Motorists will have to find an alternative route to cross the river. (Adjective: any route other than the High  Level Bridge is the alternative.)

Its - It’s


  • means belonging to it
  • is the possessive adjective form of the pronoun it; it precedes a noun.

    “I like your dolly,” she said, smiling at the little girl. “What’s its name?”

    There’s a new release by Booga Booga. Its title is “Jing-a-ling.”

    I didn’t notice the dog lying by the door—I dropped my suitcase on its tail.


  • is the contracted form of it is; the s does not indicate possession but the verb is

    It’s physically, mentally, and spiritually unhealthy to spend every evening in front of the television.

    I hope you’ve remembered that it’s my birthday tomorrow.

    It’s going to rain tomorrow.

Lay - Lie


  • means to place or to put in a position
  • is transitive so requires an object
  • has the forms lay, laid, laid, laying

    I lay the table for supper every day at 5:00. (The object is table.)

    The hen laid three eggs yesterday. (The object is eggs.)

    He laid his hand on Clarissa’s arm. (The object is hand.)

    She’s laying some mats out on the lawn so that the guests won’t get wet while they’re picnicking. (The object is mats.)


  • means to recline or be in a horizontal position
  • is intransitive so does not take an object
  • has the forms lie, lay, lain, lying

    The baby lies on her tummy when he’s feeling tired.

    He lay awake in bed unable to sleep yet unable to muster the energy to get up.

    The report has lain unopened on her desk all week.

    I was lying on the sofa reading when I heard a thunderous noise.

Less - Fewer


  • means not as much
  • is used with non-count nouns

    The elderly claim there was less crime when they were growing up than there is now.

    With the present recession, people have less money to spend on entertainment and non-essentials than they had ten years ago.

    She did less work than anyone else in the office.


  • means not as many
  • can be used with countable nouns only

    Fewer people than expected showed up at the meeting.

    The demographics show that there are fewer immigrants coming from Europe now than there were twenty years ago.

    Each year there are fewer birds coming to nest in the garden than in the previous year.

Principle - Principal


  • means primary, fundamental source or truth, or a rule
  • is a noun

    The first principle of good writing is revision.

    She’s a woman of principle: she stands by what she believes to be morally right and good.

    Poor Emma. She was working on the principle that work is its own reward and nearly ended up having a nervous breakdown.


  • means first in rank of importance or title of manager in a school
  • is a noun or adjective

    At that time, corn was the principal food of Central Americans. (adjective)

    Mrs. Chalmers, Principal of Lord Elgin High School, will be retiring at the end of this school year. (noun)

    The principal belief of the Enlightenment was that human reason could free the individual from the constraints of such things as religion, history and the natural world. (adjective)

Than - Then


  • used to compare two things when using a comparative adjective
  • is a conjunction

    Writing is much more difficult than one thinks it is.

    Tom works more conscientiously than Bob does.

    It is easier to get social assistance in Canada than it is in the United States


  • means at that time, next, afterwards, after that, in that case
  • can be used as an adverb, adjective, conjunction, or noun

    You must first show me that you can be responsible; only then will I let you use my car. (adverb)

    You told me that my smoking really bothers you. Then I’ll quit. (conjunction)

    The then premier declared February 21 Family Day and made it a provincial holiday. (adjective)

    Before then, I had been working as a journalist for a small local paper in Halifax. (noun)

Their - They’re - There


  • gives information about a noun
  • is a possessive adjective

    The children left their jackets at the park. (Not any jackets, but their jackets)

    The priest, the Rabbi and the minister were holding their semi-annual meeting. (Not any meeting with others, but a meeting among the three of them)

    The children, all now in their fifties and sixties, were looking forward to helping their parents celebrate their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. (The children’s parents, the parents’ wedding anniversary)


  • is a contraction of they are

    They’re all going to Disneyland next week. = They are all going to Disneyland next week.


  • used to indicate a place or is used as an expletive

    Where are Wes’s hockey skates?

    He left them there, in the corner. (place)

    There is little you can do with these over-ripe peaches. (expletive)

    There, on top of that hill, my grandfather built his first house. (place)

Who - Whom


  • used as a subject

    Who goes there?

    Who won the car at the fair?


  • used as an object

    To whom did the car go? (Whom is the object of the preposition to.)

    The gold watch was awarded by whom? (Whom is the object of the preposition by.)

    They gave whom the car? (Whom is the indirect object of the verb gave.)

Updated April 10 2017 by Student & Academic Services

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