You’re confused? Spare a thought for your readers.

easily confused words

In summer 2007, I decided I was stressed (long story, email me for all the juicy details). So I took myself off to a meditation course. The course leader was a sweet old lady in her 70s. Grey hair piled into an unruly bun, skewered by a dark brown chopstick. A lived-in face and a sweet, sing-song voice. To break the ice, she asked everybody where they were from. It all went smoothly until she reached a man in a rumpled tracksuit. “And where are you from?” she said solicitously. “Where,” he repeated in a dull monotone. “Yes, where are you from?” she said again, the embodiment of indulgence and patience. “Where,” he repeated, without the rising intonation of a question. “That’s right – where are you from?” with not a hint of exasperation. (She was a walking advert for the benefits of meditation.) “Where,” he said again. “W-a-r-e. It’s a place in Hertfordshire.” We all smiled and heaved a collective sigh of relief. From there, the only direction was upwards.


Confusion is everywhere, in the written and the spoken word. And here are the second five in my Top 10 easily confused words.

  1. affect / effect This one is guaranteed to set your head spinning, so take a deep breath before carrying on. Affect is usually a verb (dredge your memory banks – a verb is a doing word). So you might write the credit crunch has badly affected the housing market. Effect, on the other hand is usually (note the usually) a noun (a thing, in common parlance). I had three whiskies last night, and I’m still feeling the effects (a purely hypothetical example, you understand). Now here’s the chaser: effect can also be used as a verb. Nicolas Sarkozy promised to effect change in France.
  2. imply / infer To imply is to suggest something: my boss implied that my work wasn’t up to scratch. In other words, he made it clear, without actually saying it straight out. It’s very often confused with infer. So here’s an easy way to remember which is which: imply is to do with sending, infer to do with receiving. So if, on the other hand, my boss made a remark about my work that was ambiguous, or open to interpretation, I might infer that my work wasn’t up to scratch. Luckily for me, I’m my own boss – so the implying and inferring is kept under one roof.
  3. fortuitous / fortunate If you know the difference between these two words, then you’re very fortunate indeed – most people don’t. Fortuitous means by chance. It’s random, and not necessarily positive: the principal made the fortuitous discovery of my stash of cigarettes [bad]. Fortunate means lucky. So I could say fortunately, the principal didn’t discover my stash of cigarettes [good].
  4. they’re / there / their “If you are in your 40s and British,” The Economist wrote a couple of weeks back, “it is quite possible that your spelling is an embarrassment. You may never have been taught the distinction between “there”, “their” and “they’re”, or perhaps even your times tables.” It’s not just forty-something Brits, though. These three little words cause confusion among people of all ages and in all locations. They’re is a contraction of they are. There is the opposite of here. And their means of them. Put them all together and you have they’re going to put their bags over there.
  5. led / lead / lead A few months back, a client corrected some copy I’d sent them. It had included the phrase this led to big increases in productivity. Her amended version read this lead to big increases in productivity. So who was right? Here’s a clue: not her. It’s an easy mistake to make. The past tense of lead is led. Unfortunately, it rhymes with lead (as in pipes, pencils and balloons). So there’s an understandable hesitation.
Unconfused? Good. Now perhaps you’d like to do something ahout your stress levels. I know a very good course. Just email me and I’ll tell you Ware where.