There are a lot of words in English that look or sound alike but have very different meanings, such as altar and alter or breach and breech. It’s easy to get them confused and most electronic spellcheckers won’t be of much help in this type of situation: they can tell you if a word has been spelled wrongly but they can’t generally highlight the misuse of a word correctly spelt.

Here’s a quick-reference list of pairs of words that regularly cause problems. The words follow the accepted British English spelling. Some of them have alternative American spellings and for these you will have to consult a good dictionary.

Word 1 Meaning Word 2 Meaning
accept to agree to receive or do except not including
adverse unfavourable, harmful averse strongly disliking; opposed
advice recommendations about what to do advise to recommend something
affect to change or make a difference to effect a result; to bring about a result
aisle a passage between rows of seats isle an island
all together all in one place, all at once altogether completely; on the whole
along moving or extending horizontally on a long referring to something of great length
aloud out loud allowed permitted
altar a sacred table in a church alter to change
amoral not concerned with right or wrong immoral not following accepted moral standards
appraise to assess apprise to inform someone
assent agreement, approval ascent the action of rising or climbing up
aural relating to the ears or hearing oral relating to the mouth; spoken
balmy pleasantly warm barmy foolish, crazy
bare naked; to uncover bear to carry; to put up with
bated in phrase 'with bated breath', i.e. in great suspense baited with bait attached or inserted
bazaar a Middle Eastern market bizarre strange
berth a bunk in a ship, train, etc. birth the emergence of a baby from the womb
born having started life borne carried
bough a branch of a tree bow to bend the head; the front of a ship
brake a device for stopping a vehicle; to stop a vehicle break to separate into pieces; a pause
breach to break through, or break a rule; a gap breech the back part of a gun barrel
broach to raise a subject for discussion brooch a piece of jewellery
canvas a type of strong cloth canvass to seek people’s votes
censure to criticize strongly censor to ban parts of a book or film; a person who does this
cereal a grass producing an edible grain; a breakfast food made from grains serial happening in a series
chord a group of musical notes cord a length of string; a cord-like body part
climactic forming a climax climatic relating to climate
coarse rough course a direction; a school subject; part of a meal
complacent smug and self-satisfied complaisant willing to please
complement to add to so as to improve; an addition that improves something compliment to praise or express approval; an admiring remark
council a group of people who manage or advise counsel advice; to advise
cue a signal for action; a wooden rod queue a line of people or vehicles
curb to keep something in check; a control or limit kerb (in British English) the stone edge of a pavement
currant a dried grape current happening now; a flow of water, air, or electricity
defuse to make a situation less tense diffuse to spread over a wide area
desert a waterless, empty area; to abandon someone dessert the sweet course (part) of a meal
discreet careful not to attract attention discrete separate and distinct
disinterested impartial uninterested not interested
draught a current of air draft a first version of a piece of writing
draw an even score at the end of a game drawer a sliding storage compartment
dual having two parts duel a fight or contest between two people
elicit to draw out a reply or reaction illicit not allowed by law or rules
ensure to make certain that something will happen insure to provide compensation if a person dies or property is damaged
envelop to cover or surround envelope a paper container for a letter
exercise physical activity; to do physical activity exorcise to drive out an evil spirit
fawn a young deer; light brown faun a mythical being, part man, part goat
flaunt to display ostentatiously flout to disregard a rule
flounder to move clumsily; to have difficulty doing something founder to fail
forbear to refrain forebear an ancestor
foreword an introduction to a book forward onwards, ahead
freeze to turn to ice frieze a decoration along a wall
grisly gruesome, revolting grizzly a type of bear
hoard a store horde a large crowd of people
imply to suggest indirectly infer to draw a conclusion
loath reluctant, unwilling loathe to hate
loose to unfasten; to set free lose to be deprived of; to be unable to find
meter a measuring device metre a metric unit; rhythm in verse
militate to be a powerful factor against mitigate to make less severe
palate the roof of the mouth palette a board for mixing colours
pedal a foot-operated lever peddle to sell goods
pole a long, slender piece of wood poll voting in an election
pour to flow or cause to flow pore a tiny opening; to study something closely
practice the use of an idea or method; the work or business of a doctor, dentist, etc. practise to do something repeatedly to gain skill; to do something regularly
prescribe to authorize use of medicine; to order authoritatively proscribe to officially forbid something
principal most important; the head of a school principle a fundamental rule or belief
sceptic a person inclined to doubt septic infected with bacteria
sight the ability to see site a location
stationary not moving stationery writing materials
storey a level of a building story a tale or account
titillate to arouse interest titivate to make more attractive
tortuous full of twists; complex torturous full of pain or suffering
wreath a ring-shaped arrangement of flowers etc. wreathe to surround or encircle

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