its and it’s
e.g. The tree had most of its branches chopped off. (possessive of it )
e.g. It’s wrong to do this! (it is)
lay and lie
e.g. Lie down and take a nap! (repose; rest)
e.g. Yesterday, I lay down for a nap. (past tense of lie)
e.g. I have lain down every afternoon this week. (past participle of lie)
e.g. Just lay the magazine on the table. (put down)
e.g. I laid the magazine on this table yesterday. (past tense of lay)
like and as
e.g. The plan turned out to be successful, just like I said it would. (WRONG: like is not a subordinating conjunction)
e.g. The plan turned out to be successful, just as I said it would. (RIGHT: as is a subordinating conjunction)
literally and almost
e.g. I literally dropped on the floor. (according to the actual meaning of the word)
e.g. The man literally dropped dead. (actually died)
e.g. I almost dropped dead. (almost, but did not die)
loath and loathe
e.g. I am loath (unwilling) to tell you that I loathe (despise; hate) your parents.
oral and verbal
e.g. I will give an oral presentation tomorrow. (spoken)
e.g. That was a verbal attack on my character (in words, either spoken or written)
passed and past
e.g. I passed the exam with flying colors.
e.g. He ran past me. (beyond)
Past is never used as a verb.
permissible and permissive
e.g. It is permissible to end a sentence with a preposition. (permitted)
e.g. They are very permissive parents, who do not even stop their teenagers from taking drugs. (permitting; liberal-minded)
precede and proceed
e.g. This ceremony will precede the event. (go before)
e.g. Before we proceed, we must be prepared. (move forward)
pretence and pretension
Pretence means “make-believe”; pretension means “claim.”
e.g. The patient made a pretence to faint. (pretending)
e.g. I made no pretension to authorship of that article.
principal and principle
e.g. Did you meet the new principal of our school? (head of a school)
e.g. Integrity is an important principle in life. (basic truth)
purposely and purposefully
Purposely means “deliberately”; purposefully means “in a determined manner.”
e.g. He purposely broke the chair to show his anger.
e.g. He began the project purposefully and without delay.
rebut and refute
e.g. The attorney is going to rebut his opponent’s arguments. (speak or write against)
e.g. The judge has decided to refute the arguments. (disapprove)
regretfully and regrettably
e.g. I regretfully told him that the plan did not work. (with regret)
e.g. Regrettably, the plan did not work. (unfortunately)
reticent and reluctant
e.g. He was reticent (unwilling to talk) about his reluctance (noun of reluctant: unwillingness) to discuss the tragedy.
sensual and sensuous
Sensual means “appealing to the body, especially pleasures, such as sex”; sensuous refers to the pleasure of the senses.
e.g. The film was filled with sensual images of sex.
e.g. I stretched myself with sensuous pleasure in the warm tropical sun.
some time, sometime, sometimes
e.g. I will see you sometime this week. (unspecified time)
e.g. Some time passed before the police came. (a span of time)
e.g. Sometimes I feel sick. (at times; not always)
stationary and stationery
e.g. Before school starts, students need to get all their stationery. (pens, pencils, paper, etc.)
e.g. The bus is now stationary: you can get off. (not moving)
use and utilize
e.g. You can utilize your abilities in this job. (make good use of, or else it will be wasted)
e.g. Use your brain!
whose and who’s
e.g. Whose book is this? (who owns this book?)
e.g. Who’s going to tell me the truth? (who is)
Copyright© by Stephen Lau