20 Commonly Misused English Words to Watch Out For

Learning English can be a challenge, and even native speakers sometimes make mistakes.

Part of the confusion comes from very similar words that have different meanings.

In this post, you’ll learn 20 of the most commonly misused words in English and how to use them correctly.

From homophones that trip us up to tricky pairs that seem interchangeable, we’ll explore the nuances and provide clear explanations to help you use these words with confidence.


1. Than (vs. Then)

Common misusage: written as “then,” which refers to a particular time or sequence.

Correct usage: When used to make comparisons, it should be spelled with an a.

We went to the store, and then we went to the park. It was busier than it was yesterday.

2. You’re (vs. Your)

Common misusage: written as “your,” which indicates possession.

Correct usage: When it can be replaced with “you are,” it should be written as the contraction “you’re.”

You’re so well-dressed! I love your shoes.

3. They’re (vs. There or Their)

Common misusage: written as “there,” which indicates a place or location, or “their,” which shows possession. 

Correct usage: When it can be replaced with “they are,” it should be written as the contraction “they’re.” 

Their house is beautiful. They’re putting a pool in the backyard. It will go over there, next to the tree.

4. It’s (vs. Its)

Common misusage: written as “its,” which is the possessive form of “it.” 

Correct usage: When it can be replaced with “it is,” it should be written as the contraction “it’s” with an apostrophe.  

It’s a sunny day. The dog is wagging its tail.

5. Too (vs. To)

Common misusage: written as “to,” which is a preposition indicating direction or destination.

Correct usage: When it means also or excessively, it should be written with a double o.

I gave a donut to my friend and I ate one, too.
I ate too many donuts and now I feel sick.

6. Affect (vs. Effect)

Common misusage: written as “effect,” which is a noun indicating the result of something (“cause and effect”). 

Correct usage: When used as a verb meaning to influence, it should be spelled with an a.

Jack London’s fiction had a big effect on my writing style. His books affect the way I approach a topic.

7. Literally

Common misusage: to emphasize something figuratively rather than its literal meaning. For example, saying “I literally died laughing” is an improper (but common) usage.

Correct usage: to describe something exactly as stated, without exaggeration or metaphor. It should emphasize that a statement is true in a strict or literal sense.

The thunder was so loud that it literally shook the entire house.

8. Could’ve/Would’ve/Should’ve

Common misusage: Because of the way they’re pronounced, these contractions are commonly written as “could of,” “would of” and “should of,” which is incorrect.

Correct usage: “Could,” “would” or “should have” should only be contracted to “could’ve,” “would’ve” and “should’ve.” 

I could’ve gone to the party if I hadn’t been busy.

She would’ve helped you if you had asked.

I should’ve studied harder for the exam.

9. Adverse (vs. Averse)

Common misusage: mistaken for “averse,” which means “having a dislike of something” or “having an opposition to something.”

Correct usage: to mean “unfavorable” or “hostile.”

Many drugs have adverse side effects; therefore, some people are averse to taking drugs when they have minor symptoms.

10. Compelled

Common misusage: to mean “to willingly do something.”

Correct usage: to mean “to be forced to do something.”

He was compelled to apologize after stealing his brother’s toys; his parents said he would be punished if he did not.

11. Data

Common misusage: as a singular mass noun. (However, note that this is a common usage of the word, even among native English speakers, and is acceptable in everyday conversation.)

Correct usage: as a plural noun, taking a plural verb and plural modifiers (e.g. “many,” “a few,” “these”). The singular form is “datum.”

You cannot draw a conclusion from one single datum when many of the other data indicate the opposite.

12. Complementary (vs. Complimentary)

Common misusage: mistaken for “complimentary,” an adjective that can mean “flattering; praise-worthy” or “free; no cost.”

Correct usage: to mean “completing; filling or matching with something else.”

She got a sun hat as a complimentary gift from the beach resort. Her outfit now has several complementary accessories.

13. All together (vs. Altogether)

Common misusage: mistaken for “altogether,” which means “completely,” “in total” or “overall.”

Correct usage: to mean “all in one place.”

It’s great to be all together as a family during the holidays. We’re going to have an altogether amazing time.

14. Disinterested (vs. Uninterested)

Common misusage: mistaken for “uninterested,” which means “not interested.”

Correct usage: to mean “unbiased.”

The people on the jury need to be disinterested in order to ensure justice. They should pay attention and not be uninterested.

15. Travesty (vs. Tragedy)

Commonly misusage: to mean “a tragedy,” which refers to a storyline or event that causes feelings of sadness or pity.

Correct usage: to mean “a grotesque parody; a distortion or a complete misrepresentation.”

The unjust verdict was a travesty of justice. It was a real tragedy that the innocent man would spend so long in jail.

16. Practice (vs. Practise)

Common misusage: mixed up with “practise,” which is used outside the U.S. “Practise” is the British spelling of the verb “practice” (in American English) and should never be used as a noun.

Correct usage: to mean “the work or business of a professional (such as a doctor or a lawyer)” as a noun, and “to perform an activity regularly” as a verb.

As if having a law practice is not busy enough, he practices speaking Mandarin every day.

17. Simplistic (vs. Simple)

Common misusage: to mean “simple; not complicated” or even “pleasingly simple.”

Correct usage: to mean “naive; facile; oversimplified.”

His simplistic answer suggested that he did not study the material thoroughly, even though it covered a very simple topic.

18. Verbal

Common misusage: to mean “spoken; oral.”

Correct usage: to mean “having to do with words, either written or spoken.”

In the game, you are only allowed to use visual cues, not verbal ones.

19. Borne (vs. Born)

Common misusage: to mean “born,” as in “having started life.” 

Correct usage: to mean “carried.” This is the past participle of the verb “to bear.”

The loss of her childhood dog is one of the great sorrows she has borne. She had loved him since the day he was born.

20. Hone (vs. Hone In or Home in)

Common misusage: mistaken for “hone in” and “home in,” which both refer to focusing or narrowing down one’s attention or target. (However, “home in” implies a higher level of precision or accuracy in targeting.)

Correct usage: to mean “sharpen” or “refine,” typically used when talking about a skill or ability.

As she hones her writing skills, she wishes to hone in on a successful career as a copywriter.

How to Identify and Avoid Misused Words

To navigate the challenges of the English language, it helps to be familiar with grammar rules, learn from your mistakes when they inevitably happen and follow these practical tips:

  • Be critical on the internet. Anyone can post their ideas online, so the quality of writing across the internet varies greatly. There are countless conversations among native and non-native English speakers of all levels which often include misused words and other errors. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s correct!
  • When in doubt, look up words in a trusted dictionary. You can download a handy dictionary app on your phone or use a physical or online dictionary from a trusted publisher such as Oxford, Cambridge, Macmillan or Merriam-Webster.
  • Learn from a credible source. Pay attention to how words are used in high-quality books, essays and articles. For news and reports, you can use The New Yorker, The Washington Post or The Guardian. These are publications with dedicated editors that you can rely on for formal and correct English (though there are occasional mistakes, of course!). 
  • Use spelling and grammar check tools when writing. You don’t always have to rely on your own skills to edit what you write. When you write using Microsoft Word or other word processing programs, turn on the spelling and grammar check feature, or use a tool like Grammarly
  • Make a personal list of misused words. Using a grammar checker will help you identify your weak spots where you need more practice. Keep a list of all of your misused words and other common mistakes that you need to be careful to avoid. Do the same thing with words that you have doubts about when reading. 


Keep an eye out for these misused words whenever you’re interacting with the English language and you’ll soon be able to correct yourself and others.

With some focused practice and consistent effort, you’ll be dodging mistakes and using English correctly in no time!

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