Pique-a-Boo-Boo: Commonly Confused Words

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Submitting work riddled with spelling and grammatical errors is a sure way to turn off an editor. It cannot be emphasized enough: spellcheck, proofread, and then proofread again. If you can, have a friend read your work over before you send it out—someone else will often catch the mistakes that you miss.

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But words can be tricky, especially ones that sound (or look) alike. While reading submissions, I’ve noticed that even conscientious writers trip over certain words or phrases. Here are some of the more common errors that appear even in well-written work.

Background Image: Tim O’Brien/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. PIQUE (Not to be confused with PEAK or PEEK)

A peak is the top of a hill or mountain. When you peek, you look furtively or glance.

To pique means to provoke, stimulate, or goad. If something excites your interest, you’d say “my curiosity was piqued.”

If you are piqued, you are irritated or annoyed. When you are passed over for a promotion at work and bang out a blog entry about it as soon as you get home, your entry was written in a “fit of pique.”


To bait something is to lure it, e.g. one baits a fish hook.

To bate means to moderate or reduce. It is a shortened version of the word abate. Today the word bate is rarely used except in the expression “with bated breath.”

  • Max baited his hook, then waited with bated breath for a fish to take the bait.

To be vain means to be proud of one’s looks. A weather vane is a movable device that shows wind direction.

Vein has several meanings, the most of common being a blood vessel. Things that resemble blood vessels are also called veins, e.g. a vein of ore.

But a vein can also be a mood or attitude (“in a lighthearted vein“), as well as a style or tone of expression (“a vein of melancholy ran throughout the story”).

  • Professor Snarky began his lectures on an ironic note and continued in that vein throughout the term.

Rain is water that falls from clouds. Something can rain down on you.

To reign is to rule as a sovereign. When something reigns, it is predominant or prevalent.

Reins are what one uses to direct a horse. When you rein in something, you check or direct it. When someone has complete freedom or power, they are said to “have free rein.” When you act on a whim, you “give rein to” your impulses.

  1. E.G. or I.E.?

e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example.” Use it when you want to clarify the preceding statement by providing an example:

  • Toby likes to read blogs, e.g. Gawker, Miss Snark, and Go Fug Yourself.

etc. should not be used with e.g. Since both e.g. and etc. (etcetera) indicate partial lists, it would be redundant to use them together.

i.e. (id est) means “that is.” Use it when you want to clarify the preceding statement by restating or expanding on it:

  • Toby likes to read blogs, i.e. online journals that are updated frequently.
  1. RACK or WRACK?

To rack means to strain by force, to torment. (Think of the rack, i.e. the medieval instrument of torture.) If you are worried, you are “nerve-racked.” If you are in agony, you are “racked with pain.” If you are stumped, you “rack your brains” for the answer.

Wrack is a noun that indicates violent or total destruction. It is related to wreck and is most common in the expression “wrack and ruin,” meaning total destruction.

  • Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans in wrack and ruin.

To reek is to give off a strong or offensive odor.

To wreak is to avenge; to inflict vengeance or punishment (“wreaked vengeance”), to vent anger or malevolence (“wreaked his wrath”), or to bring about or cause (“wreaked havoc”).

  • In 2005, natural disasters wreaked havoc on the planet.

Anxious means worried or uneasy. It implies nervousness. If you are “anxious to please,” you are concerned about doing the right thing.

Eager means keen or enthusiastic. If you’re an “eager beaver,” you were the kid in school who was always waving his hand and half-jumping out of his seat yelping, “I know! I know!”

  • Even though Jenny was anxious about how well she would do on her math test, she was eager to get it over with.

To affect something is to have an influence on it. It can also mean to pretend or adopt.

  • Do you think those attack ads will affect the results of the election?
  • Since moving to the UK, Madonna has affected an English accent.

Effect is a noun meaning consequence. When you affect something, you have an effect on it.

  • Matt was affected deeply by the film his Social Studies teacher showed on the effect of the Nazi regime during WWII.

To effect something means to bring it about or cause it to happen. When something “takes effect,” it becomes effective.

  • The new mayor and council started effecting changes as soon as they were elected. Their first new bylaw took effect only weeks into their mandate.

Effects can also be property or possessions.

  • After she fired him, Bob’s ex-boss gave him ten minutes to gather his personal effects.

Fewer indicates a smaller number of persons or things. The sign at the express checkout should read: “8 items or fewer” (not “8 items or less“).

  • There are fewer students in Ryan’s class than in Rhiannon’s.

Less indicates a smaller portion or amount (of something uncountable). Note: references to time and money are treated as amounts, e.g. less than a day, less than a dollar.

  • Because of the portable in the schoolyard, there is less playground space this year.

Farther refers to a greater (literal) distance in space or time.

  • We’ll have to go farther if we want to find a parking space.

Further means to a greater degree or extent (“Let’s take this further.”) or in addition (“This situation requires us to take further measures.”).

In informal writing, the two can be used interchangeably except that farther cannot be used to mean “in addition” (you wouldn’t say “take farther measures”).

  1. WHO or WHOM?

Who is the subject of a sentence (like “he” is); whom is the object (like “him” is). If you’re in doubt as to whether to use who or whom, rewrite the sentence using he and him: To whom it may concern. (It concerns him.)

  • Who sent the invitations? (He sent the invitations.)
  • The company invited everyone who has worked in the past year. (He has worked in the past year.)
  • I forgot to whom we’re supposed to RSVP. (We’re supposed to RSVP to him.)
  • Whomever my boss chose will be the guest speaker. (My boss chose him.)
  • Whom is Frances bringing to the party?* (Frances is bringing him to the party.)

*This sentence is correct, however, nowadays whom is not generally used as the first word in a question (unless you want to sound really pretentious), so this sentence would normally be written: Who is Frances bringing to the party? Alternatively, you could re-write the sentence like so:

  • I’m curious whom Frances is bringing to the party.
    • If something is elusive, it is evasive; it escapes your notice: Despite being featured on America’s Most Wanted, the suspect was elusive.
    • Illusive is synonymous with illusory. If something is illusive, it is deceptive or unreal. The magician made it appear that he sawed his assistant in half, but of course his act was illusive.
    • To ensure means to make certain or guarantee: Can you ensure that the meeting will take place on Friday as planned?
    • To insure means to provide insurance, underwrite: Roy needs to insure his new car. (According to some authorities, insure can be used interchangeably with ensure, i.e. to mean guarantee. However, ensure cannot be used to mean insure.)
    • To elicit means to draw out or forth, evoke, extract: The police officer tried to elicit a confession from the suspect.
    • Illicit is means unlawful, illegal: Trafficking in narcotics is illicit behavior.

If you can substitute the full pronoun-verb combination (e.g. they are, who is, you are) into the sentence, then you want the contraction. If that doesn’t work, then you want the possessive.

  1. THEIR / THEY’RE (and THERE)
    • Their is a possessive pronoun: Their favorite sport is hockey. (“They are favorite sport is hockey.” doesn’t work.)
    • They’re is a contraction of “they are”: They’re going to the game tonight. (“They are going to the game tonight.” works.)
    • There refers to location: The arena is over there.
  2. WHOSE / WHO’S
    • Whose is a possessive pronoun: Whose bag is that? (“Who is bag is that?” doesn’t work.)
    • Who’s is a contraction of “who is”: Who’s ready to go? (“Who is ready to go?” works.)
  3. YOUR / YOU’RE
    • Your is a possessive pronoun: Let’s go to your house. (“Let’s go to you are house.” doesn’t work.)
    • You’re is a contraction of “you are.” When someone says thank you, the correct response is: “you’re welcome.” (“You are welcome.” works.)
  1. And a Few More Quick Ones:
  • BRAKE / BREAK: You brake to slow or stop a vehicle using the brakes. If something separates into pieces, it breaks. An interruption of continuity is a break, e.g. coffee break, commercial break.
  • CITE / SIGHT / SITE: You cite references. A police officer might cite you for speeding. You go sightseeing (and see the sights using your sense of sight). A site is a location, a place (“campsite“).
  • COMPLEMENT / COMPLIMENT: If something complements something else, it fills it up or completes it: Jack and Jill make a good couple; they really complement each other. A compliment is an expression of approval or admiration: Thank you for the compliments.
  • CONSCIOUS / CONSCIENCE: If you’re conscious, then you’re awake. Your conscience is the awareness of the morality of your actions: Jiminy Cricket was Pinocchio’s conscience.
  • COUNCIL / COUNSEL: A council is an official body that deliberates, e.g. city council. The members of a council are councilors (or councillors). When you counsel someone, you advise them. Anyone who offers advice is a counselor (or counsellor).
  • LOOSE / LOSE: Loose means free, unrestrained, untied: She wore her hair loose. To lose something is to mislay it. If you fail to win (or tie) a game, you lose it.
  • PEDAL / PEDDLE: You pedal a bike by pushing your feet on the pedals. To peddle is to sell. A peddler is a salesperson, particularly a street vendor or someone who sells door-to-door.
  • PORE / POUR: To pore means to read studiously or attentively: You pore over a book. To pour means to flow or stream: It pours rain.
  • PRINCIPAL / PRINCIPLE: Principal refers to someone or something that is most important, e.g. the lead in a play, the head of an educational institution (“Principal Smith”). A principle is a rule or code of conduct: Though tempted by the bribe, he stuck to his principles.
  • STATIONARY / STATIONERY: If something is stationary, it’s fixed, immovable, static. Stationery is the paper you write letters on.


Final Poll Results

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