8 commonly confused English words (and how to use them)

Squid swimming near the bottom of the ocean
A damp squid or a damp squib?

As an editor, I regularly see the same words and expressions either misused or mistaken for something else. I’ve compiled this handy list of commonly confused English words to help you avoid making the same errors.

If you’re a writer, impress your editor by knowing how to use these words. If you’re an editor, save your client’s blushes by catching these tricky errors. And if you’re neither a writer nor an editor, merely interested in language, test yourself to see how many of these commonly confused English words you know!

Scroll down to find out what a squid has to do with language issues…

Alternative vs alternate

British English and American English use these adjectives in slightly different ways, but the general consensus is the following:

  • Alternative – A different option to the original one being considered, or a variation on the conventional
  • Alternate – Every other one; occurring by turns
  • He refused to consider an alternative route.
  • She went to the gym on alternate Saturdays. (every other Saturday)

American English tends to accept ‘alternate’ as a synonym for ‘alternative’, but British English is less forgiving.

For the sake of completeness:

  • The verb ‘to alternate’ means to go from one to the other, e.g. “He alternated between the two options.”
  • “Alternative” can also be a noun, with the same meaning as the adjectival form, e.g. “No alternative was offered.”

Crevice vs crevasse

These two words aren’t a million miles apart from each other in meaning, but they are not interchangeable.

  • Crevice – A narrow opening caused by a crack (either physically, as in a rock, or figuratively)
  • Crevasse – A very large opening in the Earth’s surface or a glacier
  • Megan squeezed through the crevice in the rock.
  • The crevasse in the glacier was 20 metres across.

Extravert vs extrovert

This is such an interesting one. In short, ‘extravert’ is the original spelling (due to its roots in Latin), but as ‘extrovert’ has been adopted due to it often sitting alongside the correctly spelt ‘introvert’, the ‘o’ spelling is now accepted and is, in fact, the principal spelling in most dictionaries (e.g. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors).

The original ‘extravert’ tends to be used in psychological literature. For example, the Myers-Briggs test labels people as ‘extraverts’ or ‘introverts’. (By the way, I’m an INFJ-T – Advocate. What are you?)

  • My daughter has always been an extrovert, but my son is more of an introvert.
  • Jung defined the term ‘extravert‘ as someone who focuses their energy on the outer world.

For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the history of this word’s spelling, check out Grammarphobia’s blog post.

Are you an extravert, an extrovert or an introvert? – 8 commonly confused English words and how to use them Click To Tweet

Faze vs phase

  • Faze – Semi-informal verb meaning to disturb or disconcert
  • Phase – Noun that refers to a distinct stage or period
  • Rachel wasn’t fazed by the giant spider crawling up her arm.
  • My two-year-old is going through a phase of screaming.

Fluorescent vs florescent

  • Fluorescent – Referring to a specific kind of electric light in the form of a thin glass tube; vividly bright or glowing
  • Florescent – Bursting into flower; blossoming
  • Most offices have fluorescent lighting.
  • Daffodils are florescent in the spring.

Leech vs leach

  • Leech – Blood-sucking worm (or can also be negatively attributed to a person who clings to someone else, and/or draining them of resources, e.g. money)
  • Leach – To drain or empty, often into surrounding material
  • I found a leech in my pond.
  • Lead can leach out of old pipes into drinking water.

Principal vs principle

  • Principal – As an adjective, this means ‘main’, ‘primary’ or ‘chief’. As a noun, it can refer to a person in a position of authority, often in a school (US English), or college/university (British English). It can also be used to refer to an amount of money, meaning the same as ‘capital’. There are other meanings, all of which are covered well by Collins Dictionary, for both US and British English.
  • Principle – A rule or a standard, or a general belief of how to behave. It can also refer to a general scientific law.
  • Principal Skinner is the head of Springfield Elementary School.
  • He’s so rich, he can live off the interest and leave the principal intact.
  • I suppose I agree with you in principle.
  • Scientists are still trying to figure out the principles of quantum theory.

Damp squid vs damp squib

Here’s the one you’ve been waiting for.

I think this expression is particular to British English, but let me know if you live in another English-speaking country and use it. It doesn’t really belong on this particular list of commonly confused English words, as there is a right and a wrong answer.

The rest of the words on this page are all correct, but are often used in the wrong context, except for ‘extravert/extrovert’). However, the incorrect version is soooo frequently used that I feel it’s on the verge of being accepted as a correct alternative, if it hasn’t already been.

The correct expression is ‘a damp squib’ and means that something has turned out to be far less impressive than planned or expected. A squib is a small firework or explosive that, when damp, fails to go off with a bang.

  • The book launch went off like a damp squib.
  • Her party was a bit of a damp squib.

Squid, on the other hand, are always damp.

'Damp squib' not 'damp squid'. A squib is a type of firework best used dry. Squids, on the other hand, are always damp – 8 commonly confused English words and how to use them Click To Tweet

Can you think of any more?

There are tons more commonly confused words and expressions in all forms of the English language. Drop your favourites in the comments!

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