Which Word Is Which? 7 Similar Word Sets You May Use Wrong

Check out these commonly misused words that many people confuse.

Next up in the ever-entertaining “Grammar Guru” series (which has taken on a life of its own*) let’s look at some sets of words that are often confused.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not an English teacher.

I’m an executive recruiter and job search coach, so my focus is business writing.

All of these next seven sets are words that I regularly see used incorrectly in resumes, cover letters and business presentations.

Does this stuff really matter?

Some people think this is too much nitpicking, and that resumes and business correspondence shouldn’t be held to higher standards than other kinds of writing, like daily email or even this blog.

After all, these are just details. Right? Well, no.

Here’s what you have to understand: Daily email, blogs and other casual correspondence are just that: casual. The same rules don’t apply.

But your resume and presentation are your pitch about you, how you are presenting yourself to the world.

We all know that there’s competition out there. Recruiters and hiring managers have every right to assume that you are putting your very best foot forward when you are applying for a job you want.

Which means that if you send that all-important document with typos and errors, and you work in the business world, that’s a red flag. If that’s your best work, then it could be on to the next candidate.

Will it really ruin your chances if you use the wrong word?

That depends on who reviews your resume and letter. As we see from the hundreds of comments in the other articles in this series, some people either don’t know or they don’t care.

But the people who notice really notice, and they really care.

And that means that in the end, that minor mistake could result in someone else getting that last available interview appointment instead of you.

Subtle differences are almost always the tipping point in a job search.

Do you misuse or misspell these words?

So with that in mind, here we go with seven more word sets that create problems for people in business correspondence.

1. Affect / Effect

Both of these words have to do with influencing, and both have multiple meanings, which is why they’re easily confused. So let’s keep it simple.

Most of the time, “affect” is a verb, meaning to influence (the weather is affecting my mood). It helps to remember that “affect is an action,” because both of those words start with “a.”

Most of the time, “effect” is a noun meaning the end result of something (the special effects in the movies). Note that “effect” and “end result” both start with “e.”

“Effect” can also be a verb meaning to create (I want to effect improvement in my company’s community involvement). This use means “result in” which is stronger than “affect” which simply means to influence.

Monroe’s absence affected the whole team, and in the end, had a negative effect on our profits. We need to work together to effect some changes in how we plan our staffing.

For a more in-depth explanation and another handy memory trick, read what my hero Grammar Girl says about “affect vs. effect.”

2. Farther / Further

“Farther” refers to physical distance. Note the word “far” in it, and if you can ask “how far is it?” then use farther.

“Further” is usually metaphorical and not measurable, for example, looking further into the cost of new office space or wanting the stock price to rise further. It’s considered OK to use “further” to describe distance, too.

Today I walked farther than I’d planned, because need to get my exercise plan going without any further procrastination.

3. Advice / Advise

“Advice” is the noun (and rhymes with dice), and “advise” is the verb (it rhymes with rise).

As a career expert, I advise every client that they should seek advice from people they trust.

4. Fewer / Less

When you’re talking about things that can be counted, say “fewer.” If it’s an uncountable subject, a word that has no plural, or you’re talking about money, time or distance, say “less.”

The other team won’t make the meeting, so we need fewer chairs at the conference table. Please tell the caterer we will need less salad and fewer sandwiches, too. We’ll need to work hard because it’s less than two months to launch.

5. Perspective / Prospective

“Perspective” is a noun meaning a point of view, or a way of regarding situations. It’s also what you call drawing a picture so it shows distance, which is literally a point of view (which is how I remember which word to use, having studied art and perspective).

“Prospective” is an adjective for something in the future that you expect. That’s why a potential customer is called a “prospect.”

From the perspective of a prospective customer, my company’s website is confusing.

6. Discrete / Discreet

When something is “discrete,” it’s separate or distinct. I remember this because the the two “e’s” in the word are separated by the “t” which means they are discrete.

When you are “discreet,” you are being unobtrusive, keeping a secret or avoiding embarrassment.

Unknown to the customer service department, the consultants conducted a discreet survey. They identified three discrete areas where our representatives could do a better job.

7. Complement / Compliment

A “complement” is something that completes or makes perfect. Note that “complete” and “complement” both start with the same six letters.

A “compliment” is when you say something nice to someone, or when you give them something, like complimentary breakfast at the hotel. I remember the spelling of compliment because I like compliments (note all the “I” words).

Please send my compliments to the caterer. This wine is the perfect complement to the salmon, and the complimentary dessert was delicious.

I’m having fun with this series, and am learning new things every day. Please share your comments for future articles. Which wrong-word choices are your pet peeve?

Thanks to Leslie Ayres