5 pairs of words that practically beg for misuse

confusing words

In writing, mistakes are inevitable. That doesn’t make them any less regrettable or embarrassing though, especially when they’re preventable. Often, the most troublesome words closely resemble others that may or may not be related but are definitely distinct. In the interest of helping business writers avoid some of the most common errors, here are five sets of tricky words that frequently cause confusion.

Reign/rein: This pair of homophones may sound the same, but differ markedly in meaning. To reign is to rule, as a queen reigns over her subjects. Rein refers to the strap used to guide a horse or other animal – either literally or metaphorically – or the action of limiting behavior in some way. Parents rein in wayward children, and laws act as a rein on free will. Giving free rein means to allow unfettered action.

Dyeing/dying: Most people have no trouble between the words die (to cease living) and dye (to color permanently). It’s only when we use these words in their -ing form that the trouble begins. If you’re on the brink of death, you’re dying; if you’re in the act of coloring hair, fabric or something else, you’re dyeing.

Counsel/council: As any lawyer will tell you, counsel is both a noun and a verb. The attorney an individual or organization hires acts as counsel for her client. A counselor of any kind – financial, psychological, or legal – counsels clients by providing (hopefully sound) counsel. A council, on the other hand, is a group of individuals that, together, sets rules or discusses issues, e.g. town council. The word can also refer to a particular event in which members convene, e.g. Second Vatican Council.

Lose/loose: Pants too big? They’re loose – have you lost weight? If your kid can’t find his pants, however, he’s lost them. I swear, that boy would lose his head if it weren’t screwed on. You loosen overly tight things, or tighten them if they are too loose already. You lose things if you don’t keep track of where you put them.

Precedent/precedence: These two words are closely related, but not interchangeable. Precedent is a noun in its most common form, meaning a guiding example or an earlier but similar thing (“The court’s ruling sets a precedent that will guide future decisions”). Precedence is also a noun, meaning coming before or having greater importance  and usually accompanied by give, take or have (“For this project, speed takes precedence over thoroughness”). Precedent can also be an adjective, but most of the time you’ll want to use it as a noun.

These aren’t the only tricky words that like to masquerade as their near-twins, but they’re responsible for more than their share of inadvertent errors. Even for writers who feel confident about the difference, my best counsel is to think twice and check for unwarranted autocorrection each time we type these troublemakers.


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Sarah Warlick

Sarah Warlick founded Proof Positive Content to provide professional service firms with high-quality content that resonates with their target audiences. Sarah's writing appears in books, on the websites of over a dozen Top 100 Accounting Firms and in Accounting Today, Forbes and other leading publications, but usually under another name. Ghostwriters rarely get the glory - their clients do!