Confusing Words Simply Explained

Confusing Words

The English language has many confusing word pairs, those word pairs that make people stop and ask, “Is it this word or that word? Which word do I use?” 

Writing, of any type, is for communication. When you use the correct word, you can accurately communicate your ideas. On the other hand, if you use the wrong word, you risk communicating the wrong idea, and you risk losing credibility with your reader, whether your reader is a potential client, a professor, a publisher, or a visitor to your web site. 

The following 6 word pairs give people the most difficulty:

  • affect vs. effect
  • that vs. which
  • that vs. who
  • who vs. whom
  • among vs. between
  • lay vs. lie 

The information below is the quick and dirty explanation of which word to use. 

Affect vs. Effect 

Affect: This is a verb that means change, influence, or alter.
example: Technology affects our lives in many ways. 

Effect: This is typically used as a noun that means result, conclusion, or response.
example: My poem had a good effect on her. 

Effect: This can be used as a verb that means create or cause.
example: This new law will effect a change in the way we do business. 

That vs. Which 

That: Use this word to point out one thing in a category of things, to indicate which one.
example: Cut down the tree that was hit by lightning. 

Which: Use this word to provide additional information or a description.
example: I bought a new book, which I found in the bargain bin. (The comma is required.) 

That vs. Who 

That: Use this word to indicate a thing. See above. 

Who: Use this word when referring to a person. Who can be used like either that or which, depending on what you are trying to communicate.

example (similar to that): I have an aunt who loves water skiing.
example (similar to which): My aunt, who is 93 years old, loves water skiing. (The comma is required when who is used in this manner.) 

Who vs. Whom 

Who: This pronoun is the subject of a verb.
example: I know who robbed the bank. 

Whom: This is an object pronoun. (Use it like the object pronoun him).
example: Whom shall I send this book to? (or: To whom shall I send this book?) 

Among vs. Between 

Among: Use this to indicate a position within 3 or more things.
example: The flowers grew among the trees. 

Between: Use this to indicate a position within 2 things.
example: I placed the book between the two vases. 

Lay vs. Lie 

Lay: This means to place one thing on another.
example: The vet lay the dog on the table. 

Lie: This means to rest in a horizontal or prone position.
example: I think about life when I lie on the bed. 

Obviously, this list doesn’t discuss all the uses of these words. Some of these words can be used in other ways, too. (For example, lie can also mean to make an untrue statement intentionally, and that can be used as a subject pronoun.) However, if you are trying to decide which word to use, you are probably trying to communicate one of the two meanings described above. 

These 6 word pairs are not the only confusing word pairs in English. The usage guide Which Word Do I Use contains a full discussion of these confusing words and 28 others that frequently confuse writers.


Filed under Editing, Writing

3 responses to “Confusing Words Simply Explained

  1. Great simple explanations! Do you happen to know how to determine when to use “who” versus “whom” in sentences with multiple verbs? (There was a question about it here.)

  2. I’m glad you find these explanations useful. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    Regarding who and whom with multiple verbs
    The quantity of verbs has no effect on the choice between who and whom. The only thing you need to figure out is whether or not you need a subject for a verb.

    If who/whom is the subject of a verb, use who. Otherwise, use whom.

    The non-technical instruction on choosing the right word: Who can only be used as a subject, so if you don’t need a subject, don’t use who; use whom.

    I see the example on the site you mentioned. The correct choice is whom. “The man who/whom I know to be unhappy…” I suppose this is followed by a verb. The simple subject of the sentence (of the verb that follows) is man, not who/whom. Who/whom is not the subject of a verb, so you use whom.

    Another way to write the example, which might make it easier to parse, is as follows: “The man, whom I know is unhappy,…” As we see, whom is not serving as the subject of any verb.

    I hope this helps. We have more about this topic (and many more confusing words) in our word choice guide Which Word Do I Use?

  3. Thanks so much for the answer! I went ahead and posted it directly on the site so that the other users could benefit from it. I linked back to this blog post in the answer too. Just for future reference, you can post your answers and advice directly on that site without registering. If you do register I think you can link back to your blog in your profile; might help you promote it. Thanks again!

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