The English language has so many tricky words to learn. For every grammar rule, it seems like
they’re their there is an exception. Let’s take a look at 30 of the most common tricky words to remember and see if we can come up with some tricks to remember how to spell them or decipher what they mean.
Note: I use affiliate links in this post. If you choose to purchase an item with one of the links, I may receive a small commission. Thank you for helping me with the expensive hosting costs for mrsladywordsmith.com.
Most Common Tricky Words
There, their, they’re
I know this rule, no problem. But if I’m typing something really quickly, sometimes the wrong version slips in. If this one trips you up, you might try this simple trick to keep things straight.
Your, yours, you’re
Incorrect versions of these tricky words are everywhere. We see them misused all the time; no wonder so many people, especially our youth, are confused about them. Your and Yours are both possessive (you own it). I’m not going to give you the techy explanation about them. Just know there’s no apostrophe in yours. And what’s funny to me is that teens will often misuse your for you’re but text ur, which should indicate they know it’s two words smooshed into one. This image shows you how tell these tricky words apart.
It’s or its?
Which one is it? It is/it’s the first one. Yep, it’s is a contraction–it and is smooshed together. Its, on the other hand, is possessive (you, someone, or something owns it). The issue people have is they think the second one needs an apostrophe because traditionally we use them to show possession. Take my name, for instance. If I want to tell you about my blog, I’d say Kerry’s blog. Now let’s transfer that to something not so personal, say an object. Maybe I notice a book has a nice cover, so I say, “I love its cover!” The trick here to remember is you only use the apostrophe for it is or it’s.
Since many of us have kids in school and we may need to send an occasional note to the principal, let’s remember he or she is our pal and spell the word correctly. Principle, by comparison, is a rule. Principle and rule both end in le. An example of the latter is: It’s important to teach a correct principle.
This tricky word is so easy to understand but a little complicated to spell–unless you know the trick. Cc and mm are on a double date. Check your spelling and make sure there are two a’s and two o’s as well, but they split up and are no longer dating as a pair. 🙂
Dining or any word where you drop a consonant and add ing
I see this one misspelled all the time on yard-sale type adds. People don’t really want to sell me their dinning set. Instead, they mean dining. So, take the root word. In this case, it’s dine. The e makes the i a long sound. Drop the e and add ing. This makes dining, which is correct. If you take dine, chop the e, and add another n, you’ve just made the i the short sound, and it’s dinning–not the word you want. In fact, if you type dinning into google, it will ask you if you meant dining, because so many people make the mistake. Other examples are pine to pining, mine to mining, and so forth.
Knife, roof, hoof. How do you make them plural?
It’s easy. drop f or fe and and add ves. The plural for these words: knives, rooves, hooves. Now you try. Think of some more words and apply the rule: safe, leaf, etc. Want to make this rule stick in your brain more? Write the correct versions down, and put them in a place you’ll see for a few days. I love to write messages or concepts I’m trying to learn on the bathroom mirror. These chalk markers are perfect for that. You can also use post-it notes, labels, whatever works for you.
So simple. You want two desserts, right? Make sure you spell it with two s’s: dessert. Otherwise, you end up with a dry, parched Sahara Desert.
This is just how it’s spelled. Memorize it. Rr’s and ss’s together. Spell it wrong? Well, you could look like the last three letters of the word. Just sayin. Don’t be embarrassed. 🙂 A fun way to practice this word, or any word where the spelling trips you up, is to jot down each letter in the word, tear up into tiny letter squares, mix up, and rearrange to the correct spelling. Have some scrabble tiles on hand? Those work even better. Set on the kitchen table or a spot you frequent, and practice throughout the day until you’ve mastered the spelling.
The tricky part of this word is getting that first a right. Soooooo, remember that this word has a rat in it. Yep, a rat. Sep-a-rat. You already know how to spell rate, so just make sure that e gets on the end. You can even make up a funny mental picture to help you with this. Maybe picture a big pile of rats that you have to separate, one by one. Ugh! Another tip to practice this word: spell it seperate and separate, then quiz someone to see if they get it right. Teach them your trick for remembering this tricky word if they get stumped.
Oh dear! After all our hard work, you don’t want to misspell this word. Still can’t remember that it has two s’s? Pretend that Miss Pell taught you how to spell it.
Believe it or not, beautiful is listed as the most commonly misspelled word in the U.S.. Shocker, right?! I can maybe understand it for us Utahns because we’re often clever and spell it BeUtahful, but that’s no excuse for everyone else right? Just memorize this one. For fun, see if your family members or a few friends know how to spell it. Pick someone who won’t be embarrassed (see, spelled it right) if you ask. Dinnertime is the perfect time to bring up new things like this for everyone to learn.
Potato, Tomato: Single vs Plural
Speaking of dinner, do you know how to spell some common veggies? I’m a native Idahoan, and I’m here to tell you that potato does not have an e at the end. Some of might recall when former vice-president Dan Quayle got it wrong. At least the whole world doesn’t know when we misspell (thank you, Miss Pell) it, but poor Quayle is still publicly noted for it today. Here’s a link to the clip. Hilarious! Tomato is also tricky for some to remember too. Why? Here’s the catch. Plural does have an e plus an s. Thus, potatoes and tomatoes. Sooooooo, just remember that when you have more than one of these, you get toes. 🙂
Lose vs loose
Perhaps you’re going to lose a game. But your screws might be loose. 🙂 Loos says ssssss at the end. In lose, se is the z sound. We know what these words mean when we hear them, but seeing them confuses us. This tricky word needs repetition and a little memorization to get it right. It might help to remember that “the Moose is on the loose,” in which case, you should run or you’ll lose your head or an arm or whatever silly story you want to make up. Help your kids remember these two tricky words with this cute book: Moose Moose Is Running Loose, by Cheryl Welch (affiliate).
Words That Are Commonly Misunderstood
Affect vs effect
Take the first letter, a in affect and remember that it means change, which has an a in the middle. Affect is a verb and change is a verb (action). Effect begins with an e, of course. It means result, which also has an e in it. Effect is a noun, as is result. An easy test is that you can stick the word the in front of both and it makes sense or belongs. I know these tricks are subtle. So you’re going to have to practice. One of the best ways to do so, is to write sentences using the words correctly.
Some examples: The astonishing effect lead to a fantastic result. OR His choice is going to affect everyone and cause change.
Accept vs except
We must accept a lot of things, except bad manners and ill will. OK, I made that up. But you can see how the two words work, giving you clues as to what they mean. In short, accept means to receive. Except has an x. Cross out the things in your life you don’t want to include.
And now, I have to tell you a funny story related to this. Online a man criticized my comment for a cause I was standing up for. He said, “They’re Idahoans. What do you except.” As a native Idahoan, I HAD TO respond. So I simply said, “Hi! I’m from Idaho. I believe the word you’re looking for is expect.” I was very polite to not mention that he had also forgotten a question mark at the end of his sentence. 🙂 I wonder if he also doesn’t know the difference between accept, except.
I hope you can find these words misused somewhere. You’ll never forget them if you do. If you can’t find incorrect spellings, write them wrong on purpose somewhere. Then put big fat XXXX through the incorrect spellings. Then carefully spell them below correctly. In other words, pretend you’re an editor and fix them.
Nauseous vs nauseated
Not feeling well? Are you nauseous or nauseated? How the heck do you tell? This one confuses me. I tend to use them interchangeably, and they’re NOT. So be smarter than me. Nauseous means CAUSING nausea. Nauseated means you’re feeling or suffering from nausea. So, when you’re sick, you’re nauseated. But nauseous fumes might be causing the problem. Just memorize “I feel nauseated.” You’ll start to feel better.
Lie vs lay
Lie down. Just lie down and take a breather on this one. You’re not doing anything. Just lie down. After a few minutes, pick up something, maybe a book. Now, lay the book on the table. What’s the difference in what I just told you to do? Think about it. In the first few sentences, you didn’t have to do anything. You just had to lie down and take a nap or rest or whatever. But then I told you to do something. Pick up something, an object. Lay takes and object. Lay the book down, lay the pen on the paper, lay the baby in the crib. You get the idea? Good! Now lie down for another nap. Repeat instructions until lie and lay don’t confuse you anymore. Also, eat chocolate or cheese. Those have nothing to do with what we’re talking about here, but they’ll make you feel better. You’re welcome. 🙂 By the way, I don’t lie; I always tell the truth.
Bring vs take
Is your brain fried yet? Remember, you should be taking these one day at a time. This is a 30-day challenge. One per day. OK, ready? Bring it on! Yep, bring is something that comes to you. As in, please bring me that chocolate and cheese we talked about in yesterday’s tip above. Take is the opposite, away from you. Take out the stinky trash. I don’t want it anywhere near me. 🙂
Rant vs rave
I grew up hearing the phrase “rant and rave” and used it for years, thinking they pretty much meant the same thing–to complain about something. Then, years ago, an English-guru friend asked me why I use it. She was confused as to what I really meant. She’d grown up learning them as two separate words with two different meanings. To her, rant meant to talk loudly and angrily, pretty much the definition I knew. Rave, on the other hand, was positive. One raves about something they enjoy, for instance. So I started using the words separately. Then I found this on Google recently, a definition of rant and rave that matched the one I grew up with. Well, la-tee-dah (I have no idea how you spell that). Guess I’m not the only one who says it and means it that way. Takeaway? I’m going to eat cheese and chocolate (as suggested above) and not worry about it. Yes, I just threw you a curveball today. Some of these grammarish things aren’t worth more than a paragraph to try to explain. 🙂
Fewer vs less
Can you count it? Then it’s fewer. Example: She has fewer than three items to purchase. If you can’t count it or are guesstimating, use less. Example: She has less money than him. But if you have an exact count, you’d say: She has fewer dollars than him.
Farther vs further
Get in your car and drive farther. Farther means distance. You drive far in your car. Further means more in depth, as in further discussion. Picture a lady in a furry sweater having an in-depth discussion with her furry cat. Now you try. What’s a silly picture you can create in your mind to help you distinguish these two words. The sillier the image or story, the better you’ll remember it.
All right or Alright?
All right, yes. Alright, no. It’s a one-word spelling of the first one. Right? Kapeesh? Just let that settle in your brain, and come back tomorrow.
Complement vs compliment
Zero in on the one-letter difference in these two words: e vs i. That’s your clue. In fact, you can pretend in the word complement that it almost says complete. Complement means you’re adding something that completes or brings perfection. Example: Your scarf complements your outfit. Now, you know your scarf isn’t talking; it just looks really great with everything else you’re wearing. If it could talk, however, it would compliment you. “Hey, nice outfit you have on!” Compliment is to praise or admire something. So tell yourself, “I should give a compliment every day.” Get it? I and the i in compliment. Sorry if I pointed it out and insulted your intelligence, but sometimes instructions have to be obvious. Just wanted to be sure.
Disinterested vs uninterested
Actually, at this point in the 30-day challenge, you might be both. Hopefully not. To understand both words a little more, let’s look at the prefixes. Pre means before. So look at the three- and two-letter prefixes that come before the root word interested. Dis means apart, away. Un, for all intents here, means not. So disinterested means you’re detached, uninvolved, impartial. Uninterested is more conclusive. You’re not interested. Period.
Thaw vs unthaw
I love finding this error when someone says it or writes it. Totally makes my day! With winter coming, I hope you’ll get the chance to spot it used incorrectly too. But you’ll know the difference. Thaw means to unfreeze. Unthaw (remember that prefix un we talked about yesterday?) literally means not unfreeze. In other words, if you unthaw your chicken, you just stuck it back in the freezer. Just use thaw and cross
unthaw off your list of words to try to remember.
Sightly vs unsightly
My husband and I went the rounds debating the meaning of these two words. He won. He was right. There, I said it in print! Sightly is attractive. Unsightly is not. There goes that un prefix again.
Flammable vs inflammable
Today, clear your mind of prefixes. Why? Because it will confuse you with these two words. This is why the intricacies of the English language drive us crazy. Believe it or not, flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. They’re synonyms. Don’t try to dissect these words apart. That’s where the confusion is. The root word here is inflame, not flammable. And I don’t know who the crazy person was who made up these rules and decided to trick us. Curses!!! Just keep eating the chocolate and cheese as suggested above. It helps. 🙂
Passed vs past
Passed is an action verb. Past is a noun. You can stick the in front of it. It’s a thing. Example: We passed the store. Example: The past is in the past. Clue: any time you see -ed (a suffix at the end) it’s (it is) likely a verb. So expect that something is going on. Still confused by nouns and verbs? Make up a sentence. Put yourself in the sentence and personalize it. “I, Kerry, passed out when I saw a typo.” That could be true, actually. I can picture myself actually falling to the floor, dramatically–a true action verb. Now you try it. OR “I, Kerry, carefully researched my/the past to discover my ancestors.” See, that’s a noun because I can insert a my or the before it.
Who or whom?
Ugh! My friend Rachel brought up this one. I saved it for last. Why? I hate it. I get it right most of the time. But it still stumps me sometimes. Want to know a secret? When I worked for the Ensign magazine, I remember having several discussions with the editorial staff, debating the correct usage of who/whom in certain passages. Yeah! So take that! Even professionals can get stumped on this one. My easiest trick for this tricky word is to picture the two words he and him. He matches who. Him matches whom. Then make up a sentence. “He went to the baseball game.” You could also ask, “Who went to the baseball game?” But you wouldn’t say, “Him went to the baseball game.” So who is the correct choice. Now for another example: “Give the ball to him.” “To whom, do you give the ball?” That’s my best strategy for teaching you this concept in a short pargraph here. Need more examples? Here you go. Try it. Does the explanation work for you? There are English techy reasons to explain more, and they’re confusing. They’ll make your eyes glaze over. If this one doesn’t make sense, blame Rachel. She’s the one who asked. 🙂 By the way, she LOVES chocolate and cheese.
Bravo!!!! You finished this 30-day Tricky Words Challenge. How did you do? Any tips for me? I’d love to know.
Are you a Grammar Guru too? You might just love this fun tshirt I designed and sell in my etsy shop. I also offer a fun mug with the same design. Click here for details. NOTE: Tshirt and mug sales are final. I outsource printing and shipping. That company does not offer exchanges or refunds unless there is a company error (ie. wrong size sent from what was indicated on order form or broken merchandise). Consult size charts provided with product and choose colors carefully. I absolutely love mine! It fits comfortably, and it’s stylish.
If you enjoyed this 30-day challenge, you might also like to try my 30-day Patriotic Challenge. Find it here. You are also welcome to join my free, 30-day Nonfitness Challenges group. Month by month, we work on goals that support specific themes and aspirations. Work at your own pace, personalize as you need. Participation or just observation in the Facebook group is totally up to you. Join us here.
Leave a Reply