Conservation Writing Pro
Conservation Writing Pro
Communicate your conservation message with clarity!

Commonly (and Not-So-Commonly) Confused Words

Many resources are available for commonly confused words, such as “affect/effect”, “it’s/its” and “their/there/they’re.” I’d rather not reinvent the wheel, but I also want to be of service. So for advice with such commonly confused pairings, please check out what I consider an excellent resource, Oxford University Press. Their Dictionary for Students has a companion website with many valuable aids, including a downloadable worksheet of commonly confused words.

Here, I offer a few not-so-commonly confused words for your consideration. Some of these you’re likely to see regularly, like “continuous” vs. “continual” or “accord vs. abide.” Others you might encounter more rarely, such as “tortuous vs. torturous.” Hopefully, this list helps to educate, enlighten, and perhaps entertain.

What words do you commonly see confused? Please email me at I’d love to hear your thoughts!

WordPart of Speech
Description / Example
 abide/ verbto accept patiently; to behave in line with a set of prescribed normsPeople happily accord; they grudgingly abide. “Marie fully accorded with the homeowner’s association’s rules but was unable to abide her neighbor Sylvia.”
    accord verbto agree with; to act in agreement with
 accumulate/ verbto gather, little by little

Accumulate suggests a slow gathering of materials. Like its cousin “glom,” agglomerate connotes a sticky mess. “The tents underneath the bridge have agglomerated into a large a homeless encampment.”

“The pension fund has accumulated significant interest.”
    agglomerate verbto stick together
 adverse/ adj.contradictory or opposed toAdverse is often used in the medical sense to describe a physical reaction to a stimulus, e.g., “The patient had an adverse reaction to the injection.” People demonstrate adversity to those things about which they have strong negative feelings: “My uncle has been exceedingly averse to the government’s injection campaign.”
    averse adj.a feeling of distaste or contempt
 ambiguous/ adj. having multiple meanings
Concepts are ambiguous; people are ambivalent. So think about where the confusion originates: the information receiver or the information giver:  “Martin was ambivalent about the direction in which the neighborhood was headed.” “The council’s zoning laws were ambiguous.”
    ambivalent adj. feeling several ways simultaneously
 appraise/ verb to estimate the value of
Professionals appraisersapprise owners of their property’s value.
    apprise verb to make aware of
 assure/ verb to make certain or safe
The distinction here is subtle and more a matter of connotation than definition. Assure is an emotional word, implying a word of honor or a kind gesture. Ensure is generally the preferred term in scientific and technical writing as it connotes an authority figure verifying the work of a practitioner. Insure should be used with caution, as it implies the provision of a financial guarantee.
    ensure/ verb to make certain or safe
    insure verb to make certain or safe
 aural/ adj. related to the ear
We hear what is spoken; thus, sounds are both oral and aural. To distinguish, we must consider perspective. Are we talking about the speaker or the listener? "The concert's aural tones were magnificent." "The instructions were given both orally and in written form."
    oral adj. related to the mouth
compose/ verb to make up
Writers sometimes use the word comprise because they think it sounds “fancier” or “smarter” than its counterpart, compose. Unfortunately, the two are not synonyms. Compose describes the parts that make up the whole; comprise refers to the whole, which contains the parts. Thus, “the landscape comprises three distinct ecological units. Each unit composes an indispensable part of the landscape.”
    comprise verb to contain
continually/ adv. periodicallyIf it’s happening in nature, it might be occurring ceaselessly; if humans are doing it, chances are it’s periodic. “Ecological resources within a landscape are continuously changing, while our understanding of those changes continually grows.”
    continuously adv. without cease
 finally/ adv. as a last step
Both words can designate the last step in a sequence, but ultimately also implies the most fundamental or important step. When summarizing a group of steps, such as in a methodology, consider using ultimately instead of finally if you wish to stress what it all boils down to.
    ultimately adv. last, most importantly
 flaunt/ verb to show off
Both words have a negative connotation, but flaunt implies the sin of pride, while flout suggests derision, especially toward society and its conventions. “With his torn t-shirts and baggy jeans, Simon frequently flaunted his flouting of the company’s sartorial policy.”
    flout verb to mock or scorn
 rational/ adj.sane or reasonableThe distinction here is between parts of speech rather than shades of meaning. A person or concept can be rational, the explanation for which is the rationale.
    rationalenounthe reasoning behind a proposition
 relevant/ adj. pertaining to
Salient should be reserved for truly exceptional cases, as its other meanings suggest: jumping forward or projecting outward. Unless a topic is truly “out there,” it’s relevant, not salient.
    salient adj.. conspicuous
tortuous/ adj. twistedA labyrinth is tortuous, but unless we confront the Minotaur at its center, can we truly say that navigating it was torturous?
    torturous adj. severely painful
Return Home