The Most Commonly Misused (and Misspelled) Words

A young boy with his hand on his ear.

As copywriters, our reputation can rest on our understanding of language. On which turn of phrase will get a response from the reader but at a more basic level, which words are actually right to use.

This week I want to tackle some of the clangers in copywriting. The most commonly misused and misspelled words that make us do a double take during proofing and run through our rules to make sure we’ve selected the right word.

Practise vs Practice

This is definitely a word I have to consider before I write it and the difference between these two versions is the difference between the verb (practise) and the noun (practice).

To see them used will probably make more sense.

If you will practise your copywriting, you will be repeating an activity until you improve. (verb)

If you are visiting your doctor’s practice, you’re talking about a place (noun).

This verb / noun scenario also applies to:

License vs Licence where the verb talks about licensing a venue while the noun talked about a physical licence, like a driver’s licence

Advice vs Advise where advice is your oh so helpful opinion (noun) and advise is the act of giving that opinion out (verb).

I got a great tip on Facebook which was Soccer practiSe… follow the esses to action!

Affect vs Effect

This is another combo that always stops me in my tracks. Once again it’s the difference between a noun (effect) and a verb (affect). This is how I remember them:

If it’s something you’re going to do, use “affect.” If it’s something you’ve already done, use “effect.”

Discrete vs Discreet

These two words aren’t ones I used very often but I do a quick check before I do use them, just to make sure I’ve got the right word.

Discrete is something that’s independent, like a unit of measure that has a start and end point.

Discreet is being a bit more careful than usual so you don’t cause embarrassment.

Complementary vs Complimentary

Once again, two very different meanings but the spelling is so similar that I usually pause to check which one I mean.

Complementary is when you combine a few associated things to create something better

Complimentary refers to the nice things you say to partner when they’ve got new duds on (or it’s the freebie you get in your show bag 😉 ).

I like compliments! PS That’s my hint, not an invitation although compliments are always welcome.

Stationary vs Stationery

My neighbour recently told me that he’d noticed a cupboard at his kid’s school labelled “Stationary”. He added that he’d never seen the cabinet move so they were technically right. If that doesn’t make sense, read on!

Stationary is the state of stillness like zen meditation… or a cabinet

Stationery is the pens, paper and other interesting things you find at Officeworks.

I remember the difference by thinking ‘e’ is for the envelope!

Enquiry vs Inquiry

Now this one is actually a UK/US difference but British English does actually use the words differently as well.

Enquiry is a question.

Inquiry is an official investigation

And to finish, some old favourites that we all get wrong every now and then. To explain They’re vs Their, You’re vs Your and It’s vs Its I thought I would like to a cartoon by Oatmeal which explains them perfectly!

Are there any words that make you stop and think? Do you have any rules, rhymes or hints you can share?

Belinda (AKA The Copy Detective)

38 Responses

  1. In hospitality copywriting, “check in” and “check out” give people problems. “Check in” is a verb. “Check-in” is a noun. Same distinction for “check out” vs. “check-out” obviously.

    “Check-out is at 12:00”
    “Please check out by 12:00 to avoid additional charges”

    1. The same with “log in” and “login.” Most people use them interchangeably, when “log in” is an action i.e., “log in to your account” as opposed to “login” as a noun i.e., “here are my login details.”

  2. I encountered “elude” for “allude” today. I thought I was just being a grumpy old man as I’m constantly being distracted by spelling, grammatical and especially context errors. As to the errant apostrophe, perhaps the English language should allow for common usage as it appears to be now the norm for plural forms.

    1. oooh allude and elude – great additions to the list!

      While I am bit of a grammar nerd I think we all deserve to be quickly forgiven for errors. After all, language is fluid and ever changing and it all comes back to communication. If your audience understands what you mean well, that’s a pretty important part of the process.

  3. I always thought that complementary also included matching products. “The scarf complements her shirt”. Completing, matching, harmonising…

    Complimentary is the word to use when you give an item for free, or give a complimentary remark. “A complimentary bottle of wine with your dinner”.  “He complimented on my new hair style”. Admiring, free.

    1. You are absolutely right Philippa! I would like to pretend that it was a deliberate error but I have to put my hand up and admit that the complementary/complimentary is the combo I often get confused about. No excuse when I’m actually writing the rule!

  4. I was corrected a few years back for using “less” when I allegedly should have been using “fewer”. I did not enjoy the experience! It’s interesting to reflect that many of these “rules” are actually totally arbitrary – in the case here, without any historical or linguistic foundation:

    What does this mean? IMHO it’s important to acknowledge the arbitrary nature of the rules – knowing them doesn’t impart any particular superiority to you! But for writers, you are expected to know the rules, and (generally) follow them so your writing looks “right” to the majority of your audience. And hey, flaunting the rules occasionally can make people pay attention!

    On a side note: I find it disappointing that the people who regularly mix up “your” and “you’re” don’t also mix in “yaw” and “yore” for variety… it’s such a rich group of homophones, second only to “or”, “ore”, “awe” and “oar”. Just sayin’

    1. Hey Philip and thanks for commenting! I completely agree with your point about the arbitrary nature of many of our rules and I always think that if you can make yourself understood, then you’ve tackled the most important part of communication.

      Having said that, sticking within the basic rules means you aren’t distracting your reader with out and out errors (that might cause them to fly into a grammar-rage).

      I shall make it my mission to use yaw and yore more regularly I think!

    1. Imma few years late but picked up immediately your misspelling of “variant”, unless you were being humorous (as opposedto humerus).

      1. Anudder case of glass houses an’ all that – I left out the space between “opposed” and “to” in my comment above and this brilliant software won’t lemme change it.

  5. Great post – good to know that I’m not the only one who has to stop and check certain spellings!
    I had to check the difference between “further” and “farther” recently. “Farther” means physical distance and “Further” means mental distance. For example:
    ‘Your house is farther away.’
    ‘That couldn’t be further from the truth.’

  6. SO useful, Belinda! These get me all the time. ‘Lead’ and ‘led’ continue to plague me, even though I’ve looked them up a dozen times. Many thanks for your help. P. 🙂

  7. THANK YOU!  I do some work for a transcription company where the style is to always use ‘inquiry’ in British English regardless of the context.  It grates every time I have to write it wrongly.  Their argument is that the words are interchangeable, but it seems a bit over the top on most occasions.

    1. oh Wow! That would annoy me too Kris.

      I used to work for a software company and their product menus used Inquiry and Enquiry interchangeably (and inconsistently). It drove me NUTS.

  8. Yes, you are absoloutly write about the US and uk use difference words and UK  (British English) does actually use the words differently as well.  According to me i see that 60% people follow the british English.

    1. “British English” is just English.

      American English has deviated for simpler spellings over time (Cheque vs Check, the absenteeism of the letter ‘u’ in too many words, over use of ‘z’ where an ‘s’ will do, et al).

  9. Your not going to mention they’re there their? (..or you’re – yes it was intended haha!)

    Nice post. Nothing like a good copywriting post that other copywriters can’t wait to scrutinise (UK). Good stuff.

    1. Thanks! I was going to cover their/they’re/there you’re/your its/it’s but The Oatmeal did it so well, I just couldn’t beat it.

      Check the paragraph after Enquiry/Inquiry for a link to the cartoon. It’s well worth it.

  10. I love the classroom cabinet that never moves. I would like to point out that ‘affect’ is also a noun and ‘effect’ a verb in some circumstances. For example I have been bemused by someone saying for example, pollution effects the environment, as in, causes the environment to be.

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