Confusing Words That Can Harm Your Career Trajectory – Part 1

A homonym is a word that sounds roughly the same as another word but is very different in meaning. The proper use of homonyms is a communication skill that requires correct application, similar to spelling and grammar. These ideas apply to both written and spoken communications.

The incorrect usage of homonyms jumps out at readers and listeners and causes them to draw negative impressions of the speaker or writer.  Fair or not, readers and listeners often judge a person’s intelligence by their command of language and its correct usage.  

Here are some commonly confused words and homonyms that sound similar but are often confused:

Amount, Number & Quantity

Amount is used for things you can’t measure. Number is a specific quantity of a plural something.  Quantity is used for things that can be measured.  Examples:

  1. “There was a large amount of humor in his speech.”
  2. “Only a small number of fish remained alive in the aquarium.”
  3. “The quantity of honey remaining in the jar is significant.”


Adverse and Averse

Adverse means to be against; antagonistic, harmful, or unfavorable, such as being in an adversarial position.  Averse means to avoid.  Examples:

  1. “The storm had an adverse affect on completing the harvest.”
  2. “MY investment style is one of being risk-averse.”

Affect & Effect

These two words can trip up even the best of writers. Pronounced almost the same, the difference is in the first letter. Make sure you know the difference between this set of homonyms.  Examples:

  1. “My business networking efforts directly affect the company’s performance for the quarter.”
  2. “The effectof my networking efforts helped the company raise double the amount of funds over the previous year.”

Compliment & Complement

Compliment means point out something favorable, while complement means to add to or improve.  Examples:

  1. “I want to compliment you on your excellent work on this project.”
  2. “Your skill set and Susan’s seem to complement one another.”

Discreet & Discrete

Discreet means cautious, while discrete means separate.  Examples:

  1. “We are discreetin the manner in which we handle confidential documents.”
  2. “The company has a discretemethod for identifying sales leads.”

Elicit & Illicit

Elicit means to ask for or request, while illicit means something illegal.  Examples:

  1. “Your request at the staff meeting seemed to elicit a lot of comments.”
  2. “Harry could get arrested for his illicit activities.”

Farther & Further

Modern usage has been so blurred on these that many use the two words interchangeablyFarther describes a physical distance while further describes a figurative degree, extent, or amount.  Examples:

  1. “I traveled 6 miles farther today than yesterday.”
  2. “There have been no further developments since we last spoke.”

Imply & Infer

The person speaking or writing implies (hint at something but doesn’t state it directly) while listeners infer (deduce meaning for what was said or written).  Examples:

  1. “I’m don’t want to imply that Steve is opposed to your ideas.”
  2. “From what was said, I infer Steve is opposed to my ideas.”

Inquire & Enquire

The two words are almost interchangeable. Enquire carries a broad but less formal sense of asking, while inquire is more formal.  Examples:

  1. “May I enquire how your health is doing since you got over the flu?”
  2. “The police are conducting an inquiry into what I did and didn’t know.”

Insure, Ensure & Assure

All three words share in the concept of making something sureInsure generally means to guard, protect, or compensate against loss. Ensure means to do or possess what is necessary for success.  Assure means to promise something with confidence.  Examples:

  1. “State Farm will insure us against any loss we might suffer as a result.”
  2. “I will ensure that every step is taken to complete the job by Friday.”
  3. “Let me assure you that you will be happy with your choice.”

Its & It’s

These three letters put together can form one word or two words simply by the break of an apostrophe. Its is possessive, while it’s is a contraction of it is.  Examples:

  1. “Increased its department size by 50 percent.”
  2. It is [or It’s] the first product of itskind to enter the market.”

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