Do You Know the Right Way to Use These Words That People Get Wrong All the Time?


By: Jonnathan Chadwick

6 Min Quiz

Image: Unsplash by Pisit Heng

About This Quiz

You never realize how weird the English language is until you try to teach English to a non-English speaker. The things that are ingrained in our brains as native speakers are somewhat impossible to explain to outsiders. They don't make sense. A lot of rules and words in English can't be comprehended, they can only be memorized. And if you forget, for example, the definition of "disinterest" or "inflammable," you won't be able to figure them out. You either remember, or you don't.

There are words that seem like synonyms on the surface, like "thieves," "burglars" and "robbers," but they actually aren't. There are words that are so misused they've incorrectly become interchangeable in everyday speech, like "citizen" and "resident." And then there are words that barely anybody can figure out the difference between, like "fewer" and "less."

So, to make things easier, thieves, burglars and robbers are all different people. Citizens live in countries and residents live in cities, towns and states. Your guess as to the difference between "fewer" and "less" is just as good as the next person's. And the word "literally" literally means literally, not figuratively.

How well do you know the English language? Do you know the right way to use these words that everyone gets wrong?

All the houses north of 5th Street were (affected/effected) by the power outage. What's the correct word for this sentence?

Affect is usually used an adjective to describe something that has been changed. Effect is usually used as a noun to define a change. Both words can also be used as verbs that aren't interchangeable, making these two words some of the most misused in the English language.


If somebody breaks into a house looking for a place to sleep, what kind of criminal are they?

Thieves steal without force. Slipping a candy bar into your pocket is being a thief. Robbery is theft with the use of force. If you point a gun at a cashier and steal a candy bar, it's robbery. Burglary is breaking and entering and is usually combined with theft or robbery, but sometimes it's just burglary.


Kyle hated school (____ he never went to class) and ended up failing so much he had to retake every class. Which abbreviation best fits the sentence?

The abbreviation "i.e." stands for the Latin "id est," which means "that is," or "in other words." It does not mean "for example." The abbreviation "e.g." stands for the Latin "exempli gratia," which means "for example." You can remember "i.e." stands for "in effect," and "e.g." stands for "example given."


What does "could've" stand for?

This common mistake is partly due to predictive texting and auto-fill functions, but it also takes a mini-brain lapse for it to happen. The phrase "could of" is incorrect. It just so happens to sound exactly like the contraction of "could have," which is could've.


Irony and coincidence are often mixed up. Which of the following is an example of a coincidence?

Irony and coincidence aren't interchangeable concepts. Irony is when the opposite of what one expects to happen actually happens. Police stations don't usually get robbed, firehouses don't burn down and pilots aren't afraid of heights. Coincidence is when two related things come together in an unexpected or unrelated fashion. You and your friend calling each other at the same exact time is a coincidence.


There were (less/fewer) than seven people at the luncheon. Which word best completes the sentence?

Common guidelines say we should use the word "fewer" when discussing things we can count, and use the word "less" when discussing things we can't count. Mike might have less money than Jan, but Jan might have fewer quarters in her pocket than Mike.


The lecture on modern pop culture _________ Olivia's interest so much she decided to stay the entire class.

To peek means to look. A peak is a high point. And to pique means to stimulate. If Olivia was about to fall asleep in the back of the class, the lecture topic stimulated her interest enough to keep her awake.


If a student gets caught shooting spitballs at the teacher, they may get sent to whose office?

A principle is an abstract thing that defines one's beliefs or ideals. Principal is a physical thing that defines the person in charge of an organization. It also defines money that interest must be paid on.


What does a hawk do after it spots its prey?

The correct phrase here is "home in," which means to locate and progress toward a target. To "hone" something means to sharpen or perfect. These phrases are so misused they are almost interchangeable in America and Canada. The rest of the world, however, uses the correct phrase.


The kid's playpen was so noisome all the adults left. What does noisome mean?

Noisome is an adjective that describes an extremely offensive smell or an unpleasant circumstance. It originates from the Middle English word "noy," which means annoy. A noisome smell is a smell that is so bad it's annoying.


Brandon and Ava didn't want to tell anybody about (their/there/they're) wedding plans until everything was finalized. What's the correct choice for this sentence?

There/their/they're are notoriously misused in the English language. "They're" means "they are," "their" designates possession and "there" is a place. They're not interchangeable at all and will completely change the meaning of your sentence when misused.


The director of intelligence was opposed to waging war. Which word is a synonym for opposed?

Averse means opposed and adverse means unfavorable. The decision to wage war could have adverse effects on the economy, and that's why the director is averse to it. These words are commonly confused but can't be interchanged.


If you're standing on stage and suddenly forget your lines, you might be able to read them on what?

A cue is a noun that defines a signal, a hint or anything that helps the brain recall or comprehend something. Actors read from cue cards, you can follow your friend's cue, or visual cues might help you understand something. A queue is a line of people.


What do you call the area of ground where your town's high school is located?

A "sight" is anything that you see. A "site" is a physical location where a building or monument stands. A "site" can also mean a website. A "cite" is a citation, which could be a summons or a quotation. You can technically go site seeing, but unless you close your eyes and only look at sites, you're sightseeing.


Speak now or forever hold your (piece/peace). Which is the correct word?

This is confusing. The common phrase said at weddings is, "speak now or forever hold your peace." You can hold your peace, but if you're speaking, you're speaking your piece. You don't speak your peace, just hold it.


The theory that "time heals all wounds" is an example of what?

A cliché is a noun that defines something overused and stereotypical. It stems from the 19th century French word "clicher," which means "to stereotype." The word "cliché" is not an adjective and can't be used to describe a person, place or thing.


The packing list for the weekend trip listed personal products like deodorant, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. What does "etc." stand for?

Et cetera stems from Middle English and Latin and stands for "the rest" or "left over." It's usually abbreviated at the end of a list and today translates to "and so on," or "other similar things." It is rarely ever spelled out, but it's good to know what the abbreviation stands for.


All Riley wanted to do was (lay/lie) down after a long day of work. Which is the correct word for this sentence?

The words "lay" and "lie" are some of the most confusing in English. A person can lie on a bed but might have to lay a sheet on the mattress first. The word "lie" also means an untruth, and the word "lay" is the past tense of "lie," so things can get really confusing.


The family trip included a scenic drive through luxuriant foliage. What does luxuriant mean?

Luxuriant is an adjective that describes anything abundant, lush or rich. It doesn't mean luxurious and can't be used as a synonym for the word. The word stems from 1500s Latin when it meant "rich growth."


Nothing was (farther/further) from the truth than the absurd claim Mike made. Which word correctly fits this sentence?

Farther and further technically mean the same thing, but as far as usage guidelines go, the word "farther" is reserved for physical distances and "further" is used for abstract distances. Further can also be used as a synonym for "additional" (ex. Further funding is required).


The professor's lecture on metaphysics and biomechanical engineering left the entire class nonplussed. What does nonplussed mean?

Nonplussed is an adjective that means bewildered or confused. It doesn't mean bored or uninterested. The word comes from 1500s Latin where it meant "no more," as in one is so confused they can't take any more of anything.


When Parker got fired for doing his job, the other employees thought it was a travesty of the company's standards. What does travesty mean?

A travesty is a false representation of something. It can be interchanged with "sham," "charade" or "mockery," but it isn't a synonym for "tragedy." A travesty can cause tragedy but it's usually used to define absurd or distorted situations.


The taxi driver crashed into a house because he took his rider's directions __________ when she told him to just drive straight. Which word best completes the sentence?

To literally do something means to do it exactly. If you tell your taxi driver to "literally drive straight," you're asking them to drive in a straight line. If they have to take turns to get from point A to point B, they're not "literally" driving straight.


The Army general was under direct orders to give disinterested advice to the president. What does disinterested mean?

Disinterested is an adjective that describes anything objective, unbiased, neutral or partial. It does not mean uninterested, but the words have been so misused you may be able to get away with interchanging them.


What does inflammable mean?

Flammable and inflammable are both used interchangeably. They are adjectives that describe anything that can easily be set on fire. The opposite of flammable and inflammable is non-flammable. Spontaneous combustion is when something catches fire without a flame. A bundle of hay in direct sunlight can spontaneously burst into flames.


James plans to bring an umbrella with him (weather/whether) he sees rain clouds. What's the correct word?

The word "weather" refers to the climate. The word "whether" is used to present two options. Whether to bring an umbrella depends on the weather. When using the word "whether," it is not necessary to say "whether or not." The "or not" is usually redundant.


It took three hours for the family to drive the tortuous country road. What does tortuous mean?

Spell check and auto-fill probably won't catch this typo. The word "tortuous" means full of twist and turns. The word "torturous" means causing excruciating pain. A tortuous road can also be torturous, but the words aren't interchangeable.


Parker was (nauseous/nauseated) by the dozen rotten eggs in the trash. Which word correctly fits the sentence?

Nauseous is an adjective and nauseate is a verb. The smell of rotten eggs might nauseate you, and the smell of rotten eggs might leave you feeling nauseous. To nauseate means to make nauseous. One cannot feel nauseated but can be nauseated.


The judge's ruling was unexceptionable. What does unexceptionable mean?

Unexceptionable and unobjectionable are both words with similar meanings. The former means not open to object, the latter means not objectionable. They can be interchanged, but are not to be confused with exceptional, which means outstanding, and unexceptional, which means usual.


Everybody wanted to have class outside (accept/except) the one student who didn't have sun tan lotion. What word correctly fits the sentence?

To accept something means to agree to receive or believe something. You can accept a gift of one billion dollars and you can accept the fact it's highly unlikely anyone will ever give you a gift of one billion dollars. Except is a preposition that means excluding.


Will needed help moving his (stationary/stationery) bike from the basement to the living room. Which is the correct word for this sentence?

Stationary is an adjective that describes something that doesn't move. Stationery is a noun that defines paper and office writing supplies. A stationer is a person who sells paper and writing supplies.


A glass of red wine is a perfect (compliment/complement) to most cuts of beef. What's the correct word?

A compliment is an expression of praise. A complement is something that completes something. A glass of red wine might complement your meal, and you might compliment your waiter on the great job they did.


Instead of ordering an appetizer or entree, Greg skipped right to the (desert/dessert) menu. Which word completes the sentence?

When you think of dessert, just think of two desserts or a double dessert. This will help you remember that dessert is spelled with two s's. A desert is a dry, barren landscape, and one is enough. It is spelled with one s.


Which word best describes a music playlist made of rap, folk, country, rock and classical tunes?

Eccentric means unconventional and can be used as synonym for "weird." The word eclectic means to be influenced by a wide and diverse range of sources. Will has an eclectic playlist. Whether it's eccentric is up to the listener.


Some people think LeBron James is better (then/than) Michael Jordan. Which word completes the sentence?

Then is an adverb used to measure time. "I did this and then I did that, but I didn't know I could have done that way back then." Than is used to compare two things. "If I did it back then, it would've been a lot better than doing it right now."


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