Lethal Lookalike Words and How to Spot Them

similar-looking venomous and non-venomous snakes

Apologies to all the ophidiophobes (folks freaked out by snakes). But this image makes a perfect metaphor for what I want to discuss. The top two snakes in this illustration are venomous coral snakes; the bottom one is a harmless kingsnake. They look almost alike, but their subtle differences really matter.

Similarly, English has a multitude of lookalike (and soundalike) words that you need to be able to distinguish if you want to avoid getting bitten by the fangs of the Misspelling Monster. Here are a few.

Its and it’s.

These are extra confusing because the version without an apostrophe (its) is the one that conveys possession.

Its works just like my, your, her, his, our, and their—none of which has an apostrophe.

Its examples: The Roomba lost its sucking abilities after its run-in with the Doberman pinscher. That cineplex charges more for its popcorn than its movies.

It’s is always a contraction of it is or it has. When in doubt, think of the two words that are being replaced.

It’s examples: It’s (it is) your prerogative to take up three parking spaces, but it’s (it is) my prerogative to shame you on social media. It’s (it has) always been her dream to be a proctologist.

Compliment and complement.

Yup: these are two different words.

A compliment is a kindly bit of praise. To compliment is to bestow such praise. What’s better than getting praise? Getting stuff for free. Complimentary can mean free, and you can offer something “with my compliments,” i.e., for free.

Compliment examples: She complimented his handlebar mustache and ability to breakdance. She gets daily compliments on her hoop skirts, but I wonder about their practicality. I assumed the hotel robe was complimentary, so I took it home.

Complement describes things that belong together or that make up a full set. It’s related to the word “complete.”

Complement examples: Your red satin cape certainly complements your thigh-high boots. He had one too many martinis and bought a full complement of Ginsu knives—again.

Here’s a way to remember which word means what:

Everyday and every day.

Everyday is an adjective that basically means ordinary. (A fun synonym is quotidian.)

Everyday examples: My everyday routine begins with coffee and ends with wine. He was just wearing casual everyday clothes—you’d never guess he was a cult leader.

Every day is not an adjective, but an adverbial phrase. It describes how often someone does something. You can stick the word “single” in the middle, and it still makes sense.

Every day examples: Telemarketers call me every (single) day, and every (single) day I answer their calls and try to sell them life insurance. She walks her goat every (single) day.

Affect and effect.

In almost all circumstances, affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

Affect examples: Surely my little check-forgery habit won’t affect my run for governor. Your diligent drum practice is affecting my ability to nap.

Effect examples: One pleasant side effect of this medication is minty breath. This podcast about alligators has amazing sound effects. Roller skating down the aisle to the wedding altar produced a dramatic effect.

There are two rare exceptions: 1) when you talk about effecting—bringing about—change and 2) when someone—usually a psychologist or psychiatrist—talks about a person’s affect, or demeanor.

Pique, peak, and peek.

People mix these up all the time. Here’s an illustration you can use as a mnemonic.

Pique comes from the French word piquer, which means to prick or sting. Usually, pique is used as a verb meaning 1) to stimulate or excite or 2) to irritate. It’s also used to convey the wounding of pride, but most often, it’s used with “interest” and “curiosity,” like the sample sentences below.

Pique examples: The Super Bowl ad piqued viewers’ interest in the new calorie-free, caffeinated beer. Your profile says you’re the world pogo stick champion—my curiosity is piqued.

People often misspell pique as peak, particularly when they’re thinking of heightened interest. Resist doing that. Generally, when you’re writing about interest or curiosity, you’re talking about stimulating (piquing) it, not bringing it to its apex.

Peak examples: The peak of that mountain is where Dolores rejected my marriage proposal. At the peak of the “preppy” craze, I began walking around with a monocle and a pipe. I feel like I’ve achieved peak fitness and have nowhere to go but downhill. I bought that stock a week before it peaked and plummeted and the company went out of business.

A peek is a sly glance or the act of making one. If you write “sneak a peek,” notice that sneak and peek rhyme, but they have different innards.

Peek examples: May I take a peek at your new tattoo? While my airplane seatmate peeked at my computer screen, I pretended to be writing the confession to a murder.

Rein and reign.

These are confusing because they both deal with power.

A rein is a leather strap (usually plural—reins) that lets you maneuver a horse. When you rein in a person or impulse, you are controlling them like a rider would control a horse. Giving someone free rein means letting them do whatever they want.

Rein examples: You need to rein in this habit of stealing salt and pepper shakers. She keeps all her employees under tight rein, even scheduling their bathroom breaks.

Reign is what kings and queens do. It also describes their authority and the period during which they hold power. (Notice how the word sovereign is spelled.) As a verb, reign is intransitive, so you don’t say that Beyoncé reigns the world; you just say that she reigns or reigns supreme.

Reign examples: During his reign, Henry VIII had 33 percent of his wives executed. In this reign of social media, even puppies know how to pose for selfies.

To keep the two words straight, remember that rein has four letters, like the four legs of a horse, while reign has five letters, like the word crown.

Discreet and discrete.

These can be truly tricky.

If you’re discreet, you practice discretion—you know how to keep your mouth shut. Discreet is about laying low and not getting noticed.

Discreet examples: She has a discreet little tattoo behind her ear and a discreet little relationship with the congressman. I’m sure you’re trying to be discreet with your gossiping, but using your speakerphone in a crowded waiting room is not the way to accomplish that.

Discrete is about separateness or being distinct.

Discrete examples: I’ve helpfully drawn a line down the middle of the refrigerator shelves so we each have a discrete designated area. I see that you have three discrete trash receptacles—where do I throw away this dirty diaper?

Here’s how I keep the two words straight:

Your and you’re.

Every time I see someone write “Your welcome” (as I do so often), I’m struck with conflicting feelings. I recognize and appreciate their gratitude, but I also have to cringe. If you can’t resist making this common error, I recommend that you always just spell the phrase out: You are welcome.

Your connotes something that belongs to the person you’re speaking to.

Your examples: Sorry to bother you on your day off, but your kids are painting your Porche. Do you think you could wait to eat your sardine and Limburger sandwich until after this meeting adjourns?

You’re is always—always—a contraction of you are.

You’re examples: You’re (you are) telling me that you’re (you are) quitting your job and you’re (you are) going to become a full-time stand-up comedian? Then you’re (you are) also about to go through a divorce.

But wait—there’s more!

Allude and eludePhase and fazeThan and then. Capitol and capital. Principle and principal. Stationary and stationery. And so many more! I’ll return soon with ways to remember how to tell these slippery beasts apart.

If you’d like to receive fun little lessons about spelling and grammar from me each week, you can sign up here.

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Posted on: January 3, 2020

Sara Rosinsky

Sara Rosinsky is a freelance copywriter and avowed logophile (word lover) who works under the banner of Shiny Red Copy. She frequently shares fun little lessons about spelling, grammar, etymology, and the like on LinkedIn and Instagram. She adores writing copy for advertising, packaging, billboards, Twitter… anyplace where space is limited. (Like this bio.)

11 Comments on Lethal Lookalike Words and How to Spot Them

  1. Thanks! Here are a couple more: palate and pallet; flair and flare

    • I’ve recently written a clarification about palate/pallet/palette, but it’s a jpeg that I can’t share here. As for flair and flare, I’ll add that to my list! Thanks!

  2. Fantastic article. As an editor who’s obsessed with accuracy it’s great to see a summary of these common errors, along with very amusing sample sentences. My compliments on your inspired choice of subject matter. It’s not every day that I read an article that both piques my curiosity and has such a positive effect on the quality of my work. If you weren’t so discreet, you’d undoubtedly reign supreme as the high priestess of grammatical perfection. (Think I got them all in!)

  3. Thanks for this article. I knew all except the last one which was new to me.
    I have a request. When you do a grammar article, please address the correct use of “I” vs “me” which I think has gotten mixed up — unless something has changed since my grade school grammar class! I was taught that as a subject of a preposition (to me, for me, etc.) “me” is correct even when there are multiple subjects (to you and me, for Bob, Sally and me, etc.). Now the common usage seems to be substituting “I” for “me” in those types of situations. I see and hear this EVERYWHERE. Has the rule changed somehow and no one told me?! It’s become a pet peeve of mine and I’d like to let go of that if I am wrong. Thanks for addressing this at some point.

    • You’re right! “I” should only be used when it’s working as the subject; “me” is what should be used when it’s an object. I see people get this wrong all the time, even in published (and presumably edited) books. I have a couple of little memes on this topic, but I could probably write an entire article about it. (Let me know if you want me to share my little meme-y things with you.)

  4. Thank you, Sara! A sorely needed refresher—and entertaining to boot.

  5. Sheila Macdonald

    January 9, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Excellent and very helpful examples and hints. I have noted that many of the independent writers on Amazon who have good stories to tell, don’t know past participles very well e.g. the sun shined rather than shone or she lay down on the bed yesterday. Perhaps you could include some of these in your list?

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