Allude/elude

Both of these homophones mean to avoid in some sense, but in very different ways. “Allude” means to say something indirectly or avoid saying it outright, by either dropping hints or making suggestions. “Elude” means to avoid capture, or when an idea or achievement cannot be grasped or attained.

Examples:
The book alluded to Hitler’s mental decline.
The escaped prisoner eluded the dragnet for six days before he was caught.
It’s on the tip of my tongue, but the word eludes me.
She’s won second place four times, but the top prize continues to elude her.

Assure/ensure/insure

These three words seem almost identical, but they are used to convey different meanings. “Assure” means to remove or assuage doubts. “Ensure” means to guarantee or make sure something happens. “Insure” means to cover with an insurance policy.

Examples:
Rich assured Katrina that he turned off the stove before he left the house.
The nurses are responsible for ensuring patients get their medications on time.
He didn’t worry about the damage to the fender because the car was insured.

Between/among

Use “between” when referring to distinct individual items or people (two or more), and use “among” when the items or people (three or more) are part of a group and are not distinguished.

Examples:
When asked to name my favorite treat, I had to choose between Kit Kats, strawberry ice cream, and gelato.
When handing out the treats, the teacher had to distribute them evenly among the class.

Compliment/complement

These two words have completely different meanings, even if they have all but one letter in common. “Compliment” means to admire or praise someone or something, while “complement” means to add something to enhance or improve.

Examples:
The blazer complemented her outfit nicely.
Tony complimented his brother on his passing techniques.

Complimentary/complementary

Like their base verbs (or, in other uses, nouns), “complimentary” means admiring or flattering, but it can also mean free, while “complementary” means matching or completing.

Examples:
Freida wore a complementary ensemble of blues and greens.
Ivan received nothing but complimentary feedback on his speech.
The venue gave out complimentary beverages to military veterans.

Each other/one another

Use “each other” when referring to two people, and use “one another” when referring to three or more.

Examples:
Tom and Nancy looked each other in the eye and promised not to lie.
All 10 students sat next to one another, in adjoining seats, so they could study together.

Emigrate/immigrate

“Emigrate” is an action taken away from a location, while “immigrate” is a move made toward one. So, the rule is “emigrate from” and “immigrate to.”

Examples:
My parents emigrated from Europe in the 1940s.
Juan’s family immigrated to America during the Mariel Boat Lift.

Everyday/every day

Used as one word, “everyday” is the adjective, meaning ordinary or typical. When written as two words, “every” is the adjective and “day” is the noun.

Examples:
The writer was asked to put the manual in everyday language.
Mary uses her favorite pen every day.

Farther/further

“Farther” denotes physical distance, while “further” suggests figurative or metaphorical distance.

Examples:
We had to drive farther than we wanted to reach our destination.
I plan to explore the topic further when I get to college.

Fewer/less

“Fewer” is used with countable objects (those that can be counted one by one, like toes and cookies). “Less” is used for singular mass nouns that can’t be counted separately (like grass or milk). Here’s a fun trick to help you remember: Fewer = count (same number of letters when you count them), and less = mass (same number of letters, and their “word butts”—ending in “ss”—are the same).

Examples:
He tried to hand out supplies to the class, but he had fewer pencils and less paper than he needed.
I drink less water than I should. (But: I drink fewer glasses of water than I should.)

Good/well

“Good” is an adjective used to describe nouns, while “well” is an adverb used to describe verbs.

Examples:
He did well on his exam.
The test was a good measure of what we learned in class.

Hone/home

People often incorrectly use “hone” when they mean “home,” especially in the phrase “homed in.” “Hone” means to sharpen, while “home” when used as a verb means to move toward a target or goal.

Examples:
The candidates homed in on their opponents’ weaknesses in the last month of the race.
Shania wanted to find a summer internship that would allow her to hone her skills as a researcher.

i.e./e.g.

These Latin abbreviations are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Use “i.e. (Latin for id est) to mean “in other words,” and use e.g. (Latin for exempli gratia) to mean “for example.”

Examples:
Katrina’s loves classical movies (e.g., Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, and On the Waterfront).
I prefer certain fruits over others (i.e., the ones with seeds and not pits).

Note: Both “i.e.” and “e.g.” are followed by periods and commas, and in formal writings (like college essays), they are typically set off by parentheses, as in the examples above.

Imply/infer

Though they sound like they mean the same thing, and are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably, “imply” and “infer” have opposite meanings, like “push” and “pull.” To “imply” (an outward action) means to indirectly suggest something. To “infer” (in inward action) means to deduce or conclude.

Examples:
The instructions implied, without explicitly stating it, that you could take as much time as you wanted.
She inferred from the group’s body language that they were getting bored with the lecture.

It/they

“They” or “them” is acceptable when referring to a single person, but use “it,” not “they,” when referring to a business, school, organization or other single entity.

Examples:
One in three women will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime.
Sears announced in 2019 that it was closing most of its stores.

It’s/its

These two are often used incorrectly, even though they have two different meanings. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is,” while “its” is the possessive form of “it.”

Examples:
Jeetu lost his phone, but he thinks it’s in the classroom.
The chair is in good condition, even though its upholstery is starting to fade.

Lay/lie

The trick is to remember that “lay” requires a direct object, but “lie” does not. Aside from a falsehood, “lie” means to recline or be in a prone position. “Lay,” on the other hand, means to place something somewhere. Here’s where it gets even trickier: “Lay” is also the past tense of “lie,” while “laid” is the past tense of “lay.”

Examples:
Whenever I lie in the sun for longer than 10 minutes, I make sure to use sunscreen.
She likes to lay her purse on the chair so she won’t forget it when she leaves.
He lay in his bed for hours, tossing and turning, before he finally fell asleep.
I laid the paper out on the counter so he could see it.

Lead/led

“Led” is the past tense of the verb “to lead.” But perhaps because the noun “lead” (the heavy, malleable metal) is pronounced with a soft e, it is sometimes mistakenly used for the past tense of the verb.

Examples:
Jonathan took the lead in the last lap of the 10K, though he felt like his feet were made of lead.
More than 30 Ram trucks led floats in last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Loose/lose

“Lose” is the verb, meaning not to win or to misplace, while “loose” is an adjective that means the opposite of tight.

Examples:
Joe Smith won the primary but went on to lose the general election.
Amy wouldn’t spend more than $10 on sunglasses because she knew she’d lose them.
The chain was loose around his neck.

Me/I

When combining the first person with another person (as in “she and I”), use “I” for subject pronouns (when “I” is the subject of the sentence) and “me” for object pronouns (when “me” is the object of a clause).

Examples:
Toby and I went to the movies.
Santa left presents for me and my sister, but not for our dog Chase.

Note: “I” comes second in the grouping; “me” comes first.
Pro tip: When in doubt on which to use, remove the other person from the sentence. So, for the first example, try: I went to the movies. It wouldn’t be “Me went to the movies,” so “I” is the correct choice. For the second example, try: Santa left presents for me. It wouldn’t be “Santa left presents for I,” so “me” is the correct choice.

Mute/moot

“Mute” and “moot” sound alike but have very different meanings. “Mute” means refraining from speech or being silent, while “moot” means subject to debate or having little relevance.

Examples:
I couldn’t hear the phone ring because the sound was on mute.
Jessica was going to explain why she deserved the job, but the point was rendered moot when Clark offered her the position.

Number/amount

Like fewer/less, when to use “number” or “amount” depends on whether the object is countable. “Number” is used for countable objects, while “amount” is used for mass nouns.

Examples:
Our teacher taught us a number of lessons on displacement and velocity before our physics test.
We had a good amount of practice before we were asked to try the long jump.

Of/have

Sometimes people incorrectly use “of” after modal verbs (must, shall, will, should, would, could, may, might) when they mean “have.”

Examples:
Incorrect: I should of known the concert would be sold out a week before the show.
Correct: I should have known the concert would be sold out a week before the show.

Peak/peek/pique

“Peak” is the uppermost point, like a mountain peak or peak demand. “Peek” is a quick or furtive glance, and “pique” means to arouse curiosity or make someone angry or annoyed.

Examples:
About 5,000 people have reached the peak of Mount Everest.
Rush hour peaks at 6 p.m.
Charlie peeked around the corner to see if anyone was coming.
His mother was piqued that he didn’t finish the souffle she made just for him.
The question piqued my interest; I had to find out more.

Pro tip: Here’s one way to remember the differences: “Peak” has an a, like in “acme;” “peek” has two e’s, like in “eye;” and “pique” has que in it, like “question.”

Principal/principle

Like many entries in this list, these homophones sound the same but have completely different meanings. “Principal” has a number of meanings, depending on whether it’s used as a noun, adjective, or verb, but its general connotation means chief, main, or primary. When used as a noun, a “principal” is a person of high authority or prominence, like the head of a school, a principal on a loan, or a principal player in a crime. When used as an adjective, “principal” means leading or primary, such as a primary cause or reason. A “principle,” meanwhile, is a noun meaning a tenet, rule, or standard.

Examples:
Nick O’Shea is the principal of John I. Leonard High School.
Many people argue over the principal cause of the Democrats’ loss in the 2016 election.
I agree with you in principle, but I take issue with your arguments.
Nelson Mandela was a man of principle.

Than/then

“Than” is used for comparison, while “then” is used in references to time.

Examples:
He was taller than I thought.
Marcus graduated from UCLA, then pursued a doctoral degree in quantum physics at MIT.

That/which

If the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence—so much so that if you remove it, the sentence changes—use “that.” If the clause is an extra descriptive detail that can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, use “which.”

Examples:
The ball, which has three red spots, sat in the corner of the room.
The ball that has three spots sat in the corner of the room.

Note: In the first example, the nonrestrictive clause provides more detail about the ball, but it’s not essential to the sentence. In the second example, the restrictive clause is used to differentiate that ball from the other balls, so it can’t be removed without changing the meaning.
Also note: In these uses, “which” always follows a comma; “that” does not.

That/who:

“That” is for objects, while “who” is for people (and pets, if you prefer). The rule: things that, people who.

Examples:
Many of the doctors who get their medical degrees at Emory move to pursue fellowships in a specific specialty.
Max played on the team that won three championships in a row.

Note: Even though they are made up of people, groups, teams, and other collective nouns are considered things. Also note: In “a group of people who tango,” “who” is describing “people” not “group,” so it gets a “who” not “that.”

Their/they’re/there

“Their” is the possessive form of “they,” “they’re” is a contraction of “they are,” and “there” is a location or a pronoun.

Examples:
The Kims celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary on Wednesday.
You’ll love my friends; they’re a blast.
He wanted me to go there to bring him the keys.
She knew there was only one answer to the question.