English is a tricky language and there are many reasons we confuse words. Many words have very similar spellings, which make them easy to confuse.

Some nouns and verbs are very similar, but with a slight change of spelling:

My advice (noun) to you is, read a lot and often. I advise (verb) you to read a lot and often.
We should always practise (verb) good hygiene. Washing your hands frequently is a sensible practice (noun).
I would like to license (verb) my car. I am looking forward to getting my driver’s licence (noun).
The medicine will affect (verb) your ability to concentrate. The effect (noun) of the medicine was to make me sleepy.
He was out of breath (noun) from running. It’s hard to breathe (verb) in this polluted city.

More examples of words with similar spelling:

A right angle is ninety degrees. You are an absolute angel, thank you!
A desert is a hot, dry place. I made a delicious ice cream for dessert.
I write in my diary every day. There were a hundred cows in the dairy.
Am I eligible for a refund; do I qualify? Your writing is illegible – it’s far too untidy to read.
There was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder. The sky was lightening from black to yellow and pink as the sun started to rise.
This skirt is too loose so I will have to wear a belt. Did you lose your phone?
You are very quiet I feel quite ill this morning.
– Were you absent yesterday? Where did you go?
It costs nothing to compliment someone by congratulating them on their achievement. This navy jacket makes a good combination with the pants and will complement (go with) your outfit nicely, but the red one clashes with the pants.

Contractions might also create confusion:

– You’re early Did you bring your camera?
– They’re happy because their friends are there.
– It’s funny to watch the dog chasing its
Do you know whose party is taking place tonight, and who’s going to it?
– We’re not going to it, although yesterday we thought we were.

You can find out more about contractions here.

The way we pronounce words sometimes leads to mistakes when we write them:

– am and I’m
– a lot (not alot) and a bit (not abit)
– definitely (not definately)
– delicious (not delecious)
– than and then
– of and off

Words with two letters – sometimes we incorrectly add an extra letter; or we incorrectly add a letter and take one out:

– disappeared (not dissappeared or dissapeared)
– disappointed (not dissappointed or dissapointed)

Homophones, because they sound the same but are spelled differently, can also make us muddled. For example: Too many people are taking two hours instead of one to complete the worksheet.

You can find out about homophones here.

Words that take different prefixes can be confusing, for example:

When my friends rejected me, I felt very dejected. (‘Rejected’ means not accepted or wanted; ‘dejected’ means sad and disappointed.)

You are a disinterested party if you are uninterested in gaining something from a situation for yourself. (‘Disinterested’ means you are not biased to either side, ‘uninterested’ means you are not interested.)

You can find out about prefixes here.

Words often have very similar functions, which leads us to confuse which word we should use:

I would like to borrow a book from you. You are kind to lend me a book. (‘Borrow’ is like ‘take’, while ‘lend’ is like ‘give’.)
I can dance well but my parents say I may not go dancing. (‘Can’ means you are able to, while ‘may’ means you have permission to.)
There are fewer trees in the forest and there is less water in the dam. (‘Fewer’ is used with countable nouns such as trees – and ‘less’ with uncountable nouns such as water.)
I will teach you to play the saxophone if you promise to do your best to learn. (‘Teach’ is to give information, while ‘learn’ is to take the information – and remember it.)
We won the match and beat the opposing team by four goals. (If you say you ‘won’, you are speaking about yourself and your achievement. If you say you ‘beat’ an opponent, you are speaking about yourself as well as the opponent – who lost. It is confusing because the opposite of ‘win’ is ‘lose’.)
We listened to the tragic news about the fatal accident where all the taxi occupants died. (If something is ‘tragic’, it is very sad. If something is ‘fatal’, then someone died. Something that is tragic is not always fatal.)
You can have one book to share between two learners because there are not enough books to share among the whole class. (We use the preposition ‘between’ when there are only two and ‘among’ when there are many.)

‘Little words’ (such as prepositions and auxiliaries) can also be confusing.

should have (not should of) – So it is ‘I should have gone’ NOT ‘I should of gone’.
try to (not try and) – So it is ‘Try to improve your work’ NOT ‘Try and improve your work’.

People also add prepositions where we don’t need them. Eg the verb throw does NOT take the preposition ‘with’. So you don’t ‘throw him with a stone’ you ‘throw a stone at him’. (Though the best is not to throw any stones at all!)

In South Africa, we usually follow British spelling rules. However, we often read texts with American spelling, and that is very confusing! The main difference is that British English keeps the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages, mainly French and German. Whilst American English spellings are based mostly on how the word sounds when it is spoken. Here are a few spelling tips, to recognise the difference.

British English words ending in ‘our’ usually end in ‘or’ in American English:
– colour/color

There are verbs in British English that can be spelled with either ‘ize’ or ‘ise’ at the end. In South Africa we tend to use an ‘s’ spelling. In American English these verbs are always spelled with ‘ize’ at the end:
– apologise/apologize

British spelling doubles the ‘l’ in when there is a vowel and ‘l’ at the end of a word. American spelling doesn’t double the ‘l’.
travel + ed = travelled/traveled

British English words that are spelled with the double vowels ‘ae’ or ‘oe’ tend to be just spelled with an e in American English.
– encyclopaedia/encyclopedia
– manoeuvre/maneuver

Some nouns that end with ‘ence’ in British English are spelled ‘ense in American English:’
– defence/defense

Some nouns that end with ‘ogue’ in British English end with either ‘og’:
– analogue/analog

Some words in British English that usually end in ‘re’ always end in ‘er’ in American English:
– centre/center