English vocabulary · vocabulary

What Are Some Words that Are Often Confused?

By Harriet Anderson and Jacqueline Schaalje


Did you know that some of the most difficult words to learn are usually words that sound the same? Well, they are. The following examples are groups of words that are often confused, but great to know about when learning English: words that sound the same, or are spelled (written) the same.

What are Homonyms?

Various English words have similar sounds. They are known as homonymsHomographs and homophones are both groups of homonym words that have different concepts.


Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but have different meanings. They often are not pronounced in the same way, but some do have similar pronunciations.

Examples of homographs:

bass – a deep tone | a type of fish

does – female deer (plural form) | present, third person form of the verb, do (singular)

desert – a dry and hot region | to leave (verb) **Also confused with dessert (a sweet dish eaten after dinner/supper)

project – a plan | to throw forward (verb) | to cast a shadow on a surface (verb)


Homophones are words that sound similar, but have different kinds of meanings and spellings. These words are often difficult for both English learners and natives to remember.

Here are the most commonly confused homophones:

Affect and Effect

Effect is a noun. It refers to the result or product of something.

Example: The mother’s voice had a calming effect on her child.

Affect is a verb. It means to influence something.

Example:  Her voice started to affect the child.

Remember this: Affect is a verb, representing an action or something that’s happening. Effect, on the other hand, refers to the result of an action or the conclusion of something that was done.

Their, They’re and There

These words are commonly confused by English learners as well as native speakers.

Their is a possessive pronoun. It refers to something that belongs to the subject, generally a person.

Example: Their book is on the table.

They’re is a contraction of ‘they and are’. They itself refers to a person of unidentified gender or a person/people already mentioned in a previous sentence.

Example: They’re planning to arrive at the party tonight. (they are)

There is an adverb. It refers to a location and is sometimes used with the verb, to be, as an idiom.

Example: The guy stood there in the corner.


Remember this: All three words are commonly mixed up by natives and learners alike. If you are unsure about how to use them, remember that:

They’re refers to a person or a group of people.

Their usually refers to something that belongs to someone.

There refers to a location that someone may mention.

As you can see, many difficult, yet important words of the English language are notoriously tricky to learn. And, if you are learning English as a second language, they can appear “random” and frustratingly difficult to grasp.

Check out this earlier article about they’re and their.


Now have a go at the Quiz. You can do this online here.

Fill in: desert, dessert, bass, affect, effect, project, does, there, they’re, their

1 Winter is a good season to go on a trip in the ___________, because it’s less hot.

2 – Here, try some of the delicious ___________. – Sorry, I don’t eat fish.

3 _________ isn’t a lot of food left. Let’s go to the market.

4 The children haven’t eaten all ____________ vegetables.

5 The car lights __________ moving shadows on the walls.

6 Even when I’m actually full, I can’t say no to a nice ___________.

7 How does the constant competition ____________ the students’ stress levels?

8 ____________ more nervous than they’d like to admit.

9 When we came around a quiet corner of the trail, a pair of elegant ____________ skipped across.

10 What’s the ____________ of our advertising campaign on sales?

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