These words take root in our subconscious


Like the incessant, drip, drip, drip of an old, leaky faucet, a flood of words has saturated the English language, and they just won’t go away! This group of commonly confused words takes root in the subconscious and seems able to withstand the efforts of even the most well intentioned speaker. I suspect that for many, the source of misunderstanding about commonly confused words stems from the method in which we acquire them. Like sponges, we “absorb” their usage on a daily basis without even noticing.

Remember the days of subliminal advertising? At the local cinema, an image of popcorn would flash for a split second on the screen. As theory has it, upon unconsciously viewing the image the audience would soon find itself on a pilgrimage to the concession stand driven by a sudden inexplicable popcorn craving. Advertisers still seek to infiltrate our subconscious through sheer repetition of their client’s brand name. Why? Because it has proven to be an effective method. Commonly confused words reach our subconscious following the same path.

People often acquire commonly confused words without their knowing consent, and then they perpetuate the problem as they repeat the words. Even after the usage reaches their consciousness and they become aware of the confusing culprit, many otherwise articulate speakers continue to fall prey to the commonly confused words’ drip, drip, drip strategy and, over time, revert back to the popular but nevertheless incorrect usage.

As if their plot to foil the English language wasn’t complete, commonly confused words have other lines of attack. Once a commonly confused word makes it into print, it inherits a kind of superpower. Readers tend to remember what they read, so if a commonly confused word is published, the confusion factor is multiplied. Furthermore, these misused words are seemingly contagious. If you observe two people talking for long enough, one will eventually, unknowingly unleash a commonly confused word. The defenseless recipient of the word will become infected with its dastardly definition. He tells two friends; they tell two friends, and so on . . .

The following items are a sampling of commonly confused words, along with their respective descriptions.

a, an

The use of these two articles is dictated not by the following letter but by the sound of the following letter. A precedes a consonant sound. An precedes a vowel sound. (A historian,but an honor; An owl, but a unicorn)

among, between

Something is between two things but among more than two things.We are here  among friends to discuss the difference between right and wrong.

can, may

Can means to be physically able. May means to have permission. May I go to the store? My leg has healed, and I think I can do it!  Hopefully means full of hope. Do not use it to mean “I hope.” Jaime watched hopefully as the raffle tickets were drawn…not, Hopefully, his raffle tickes will win.

lay, lie

Lay means to put or place and takes a direct object. I went to lay the carpet. Lie means torecline. I’m just going to lie back and relax. The problem is that the past tense for lie is  lay.

Now, it’s your turn. The following sentences include some of the most used commonly confused words. See if you can select the right word. Good luck!

Commonly Confused Words Quiz:

1. The girl has (a lot or alot) of friends.

2. (Bring or Take) this apple to that teacher.

3. He (complimented or complemented) her about her new outfit.

4. The youngest runner ran (further or farther) than the others.

5. Are you sick? You don’t look (good or well).

6. The dog lost (its or it’s) collar.

7. Will you (lend or loan) me the money?

8. (Sit or Set) that box over here.

9. They will come (regardless or irregardless) of the weather.

10. Susan has (fewer or less) pets than does Nicholas.


I hope you did well. These words can be tricky. The only defense against commonly confused words is to learn their correct definitions and then consistently practice their correct usage. Consider this sports analogy: If you learned to serve a tennis ball incorrectly and you practiced and practiced this method every day. You would become very good at serving a tennis ball incorrectly.

If we are to defeat these commonly confused words, we must be on our toes!


1.A lot. Alot is not a word but is commonly (and improperly) used to mean “many”.

2. Take. Bring is reserved for movement from a farther place to a nearer one. Take is used for any other movement. Take these books to Mr. Smith for approval and bring them back to me.

3. Complimented. To complement is to add to or reinforce something. The belt complements her wardrobe.Compliment means to flatter. He  complimented her on her lovely new belt.

4. Farther denotes physical advancement in distance. Further denotes advancement to greater degree, as in time.( Anthony ran farther than Steven. I don’t want to discuss this any further.

5. Well. Good is an adjective. Well is almost always an adverb Well can be used as an adjective only in reference tohealth. Anna Katherine is a  good dancer. Joseph runs well.

6. Its. Its is possessive. It’s is the contraction of it is. The calico cat lost  its toy. It’s time to buy a new toy.

7. lend / loan (either) According to the Columbia Guide to Standard American English, Lend and loan are both acceptable as verbs instandard English: “Can you lend (loan) me a dollar?” However, only lend should be used in figurative senses: “Will  you lend me a hand?” Importantly, there is an ongoing debate about these two commonly confused words. Columbia Journalism Review wrote this about loan, “Why take a perfectly good noun and make it a verb when there’s already a  perfectly good verb? A loan is what you get when somebody lends you something.”

8. Set. Set is a transitive verb meaning to put or to place. Its principal parts are set, set, set. Sit is an intransitive verb  meaning to be seated. Its principal parts are sit, sat, sat. Set the vase on the table. Sit on the couch and rest for a moment.

9. Regardless. There is no such word as irregardless.

10.  Fewer. Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. “His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not sogreat as mine.” “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine.”





About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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5 Responses to These words take root in our subconscious

  1. Ned Carey says:

    OK number 6 was a trick question. Possesion is normally shown by an apostrophe. The word “Its” is an exception to the rule.

  2. Eve says:

    Wow!! I did great! So tell me: I keep having this discussion with my hubby. Is it “SUPPOSEDLY OR SUPPOSIBLY??

    I say it’s supposedly!

  3. Thanks,Eve. And you are right! BTW: I’m checking out the widget thing now.

  4. Carol says:

    And I think you could do a whole ‘nother (haha) post on “affect” and “effect” (or maybe you already have and since I have just started to read your blog, I just haven’t found it yet)…

  5. Oh, I loooooove these!
    My olde english school grammar wacked into my head at a young age has proved to be surprisingly useful. Thanks Rob, I will be back for more!


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