“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” -Mark Twain

While grammar and punctuation can often make or break a good sentence, it is sometimes just as important to pay attention to specific words. A lot of words in the English language sound the same but have different spellings and drastically different meanings. Just as forgetting the comma in “Let’s go eat Grandma” can have grave consequences, and having “baited breath” is not the same as having “bated breath.” (The latter means someone is awaiting great suspense while the former essentially means you should probably gargle some Listerine).

It is helpful to refresh your memory every so often by reviewing words that sound alike and familiarizing yourself with their spellings and meanings. If you notice there are certain words that you tend to have trouble with in particular, try making a list and keeping it stored on your computer, posted in your office or wherever you tend to do your writing.


Here is a short list of commonly confused words:


Bough – a branch on a tree

Bow – to bend one’s head or torso in acknowledgment; the front of a boat


Cereal – what you eat for breakfast

Serial – part of a series


Desert – an area with a dry climate and no water

Dessert – the meal you eat after dinner, usually consisting of something sweet


Dual – having two parts

Duel – a battle or fight between two people


Ensure – to make sure something will happen

Insure – to guarantee compensation in the event of loss or damage


Foreword – an introduction or opening chapter of a book

Forward – ahead or onward


Loose – to unfasten; describing the way something fits

Lose – to misplace or be deprived of


Palate – the roof of the mouth

Palette – a board for mixing paint


Principal – the head of a school

Principle – a value or standard


Stationary – not moving, such as a bike

Stationery – something you write on

About the author

Rachel Rachel Brownlow is founder and CEO of Your Written Word LLC, a ghostwriting company that helps successful and aspiring business leaders take their ideas from conception to publication. She has written, edited, proofread, consulted and/or created publishing proposals for more than a dozen nonfiction books. She also contributes to a variety of magazines and publications, including the Austin Business Journal, Austin Monthly, NSIDE Magazine and Georgetown View Magazine. You can find more of her work at rachelbrownlow.com/portfolio.