Homonyms or words that are a letter or two different from each other can cause trouble for writers and can perplex readers when misused. Here’s a guide for distinguishing them:
1. affect / effect
These two words have specialized meanings in psychology, but in ordinary speech and writing, affect is most often used as a verb meaning “to act on or to cause a change” and effect as a noun meaning “a change that is the result of some action”:
How will the move to New Orleans affect the family? (verb)
What is the effect of this move on the children? (noun)
Note: Effect can also be used as a verb meaning “to cause” or “to bring about”:
The new mayor has effected positive change in the police department.
2. advice / advise
The error with this pair commonly results from mispronunciation and failure to distinguish between a noun and a verb. The c in advice is pronounced with the sound of /s/. The s in advise is pronounced with the sound of /z/.
Advice is a noun meaning “recommendation regarding a decision.” Advise is a verb meaning “to counsel”:
She always gives me good advice. (noun)
What do you advise me to do? (verb)
3. aisle / isle
Both words are nouns. An aisle is a passageway between rows of seats, shelves or other fixtures or obstacles. An isle is an island:
You’ll find the children in the toy aisle.
Robinson Crusoe was stranded on a desert isle.
I want a modern kitchen with a work isle in the middle.
4. adverse / averse
Both adjectives imply a form of opposition. Something that is or acts against one’s interests or well-being is adverse. The word averse describes feelings of repugnance towards something:
The jury delivered an adverse verdict against the defendant.
Ferris Bueller was averse to attending school that morning.
5. amoral / immoral
Morals and morality relate to considerations of right or wrong. For anyone who has internalized a code of moral behavior, acting against it is immoral.
For example, Macbeth recognizes that it is wrong for a host to kill his guest, but he and his wife do it anyway. Their murder of Duncan is immoral .
When the sharks in the “Jaws” movies kill people, their behavior is amoral. They don’t feel that it’s wrong to kill a human being. Here are two examples of current uses of amoral:
Nature is amoral. Nature is neither good nor bad. It just is.
David Coleman once said that no one really cares about what a student thinks and feels. What is important is writing and reading informational text. Thus, the Common Core is an amoral curriculum.
6. appraise / apprise
Appraise means “to set a value on something.” Apprise means “to inform”:
A new Audemars-Piquet limited-edition women’s pocket watch with Swiss movement was appraised at $ 13,500.
As stated in Marby, “only when it develops that the defendant was not fairly apprised of its consequences can his plea be challenged under the Due Process Clause.”
7. aural / oral
The adjective aural relates to the ear or to hearing. The adjective oral relates to the mouth or speaking.
The study investigates listening and aural experience in a New York City community devoted to avant-garde jazz.
A good oral presentation is well structured; this makes it easier for the listener to follow.
After the accident, Jones required extensive oral surgery.
8. bring / take
Both of these verbs have multiple meanings, but as a pair, they form opposites in the context of conveying something from one place to another.
Bring is “to carry along from one place to another.” The word implies motion toward the place where the speaker or auditor is.
Take also means “to carry something to another place,” but the movement is away from a place. The Chicago Manual of Style explains the difference this way:
“The simple question is, where is the action directed? If it’s toward you, use bring (e. g., bring home the bacon). If it’s away from you, use take (e.g., take out the trash). You take (not bring) your car to the mechanic.”
9. bated / baited
The error with these words often occurs in the idiom “with bated breath.” The error is to write baited for bated. In the context of the idiom, bated means “with reduced intensity.” (Think of the breath as being abated or weakened.)
In another context, baited means “with bait attached,” as in, “The hook is baited with a worm.”
10. broach / brooch
Both words are pronounced the same. Broach is a verb meaning “to open up.” Literally, one might broach a cask of wine. Figuratively, one might broach a subject in conversation:
I waited in the awkward silence, trying to decide whether I wanted to broach the subject of his hesitation in Belgrave Square.
Brooch is a noun. Originally, a brooch was used like a safety pin to fasten clothing. Those who could afford it wore decorative brooches fashioned of precious metals set with precious stones. No longer essential to secure clothing, a brooch is usually an ornament pinned to something:
Create a choker necklace using a narrow scarf and flashy brooch.