Rhetoric and Composition/Commonly Confused Words

The English language can be tricky in part because there are multiple words that sound the same, so some people use them interchangeably, even though they have meaning-changing differences. Here are some examples of commonly confused word pairs and trios, as well as tricks to tell which option a writer should use.


  • Accept means “to receive.”
  • Except means “excluding.”


  • Except for John, everyone accepted the compliments.
  • While accepting the trophy, the actress thanked everyone except her husband.


  • Affect usually means “to have an effect on.”
  • Effect usually means “a result.”


  • When the speaker was describing the Doppler effect, Mary’s ringing cell phone affected her peers' concentration.
  • The disease, which affected everyone, had an especially terrible effect on the women.


  • Its refers to something that belongs to someone or something.
  • It’s means “It is.”


  • When the mouse said, “It’s raining,” it accidentally dropped its umbrella.
  • Its tiny little feet skitter downstairs because it’s morning.

This one is tricky. Since the different forms of these words are used at different times, the best way to check which one you need is to look at the lie/lay chart:

Present tense (right now) Past tense Past participle
lie [rest] lay [rested] (has or have) lain [rested]
lay [place] laid [placed] (has or have) laid [placed]

Check if you have the right one by substituting the word in brackets for your word in your sentence. If it’s right that way, then you’ve got it!

  • I’m going to lie down/Yesterday I lay down/ Since three I have lain here.
  • I lay this paper down/Yesterday I laid it down/ I have laid it here for you.


  • A principle is a rule or a truth.
  • Principal refers to "the chief, chief part, or chief person.”


  • The high school principal told the students to remember their behavior principles.
  • The principal committee members stated the principles for good business.


  • Their refers to the objects belonging to a group of people.
  • There is a location, usually some distance from the speaker.
  • They’re is the shorter way to say “They are.”


  • Over there, where they’re sitting, is where their coats belong.
  • Their trombones fell down over there, but they’re not picking them up.


  • With to, it’ll either be before a verb or an object, depending how you’re using it.
  • Two is the number between one and three.
  • Too means “also” or “excessively.”


  • To get to work on time, set your alarm clock for two o’clock, too.
  • Two rabbits were too late for school to catch the bus, so they went back to bed.


  • Whose asks to whom the object belongs.
  • Who’s is the short way to say “who is.”


  • Whose jacket is that, and who’s picking it up?
  • Who’s the one responsible for this mess, and whose stuff is spread all over the place?


  • Your refers to something belonging to you.
  • You’re is the short way to say “you are.”


  • You’re the one who dropped your soup.
  • Your mom said you’re in a lot of trouble!