Category Archives: Confusing Words

If you have difficulty remembering the meaning or spelling of particular words, look up the proper usage before finalizing or submitting important information.

text box Words that cause confusion

taut and taught

These two words sound alike, but taught and taut have different meanings. Taut is an adjective meaning tense or tight. Taught is the past (and past participle) form of the verb teach.


(adjective): “The ad promised that the face cream would make my skin smooth and taut.”
Her nerves were taut as she awaited the results.


(verb): “She taught me everything I know about photography.”
“I have been taught by renowned experts in the field.


Taut is similar to tight (“Pull the rope taut.”)

The past tense of teach is NOT “teached.”

“He teached me how to play stickball.” X

“He taught me how to play stickball.” 





text box Words that cause confusion

ensure and insure

The adjective sure means confident and certain; when a person is assured, she is confident (as in “self-assured”). Assured can also be a noun, with a similar meaning as insured. (See Black’s Law Dictionary: “Thus where a wife insures her husband’s life for her own benefit and he has no interest in the policy, she is the ‘assured’ and he the ‘insured.’ ”) As the past tense of assure, the verb assured can mean “to give confidence to,” or reassure (restore confidence or assure again).

Confusion arises because, in the U.S., insure, ensure, and assure can all mean “to make certain.”

The board favors expansion, but success is not assured.

Wise planning will ensure a successful event.

The regulations were designed to insure your safety.

Think of ensure as “making sure” something will or will not happen; when you insure something of value, you seek payment for losses or damages that are covered by the terms of your insurance policy. Statements are often made to provide assurance, but they may or may not be backed up by actions!


(verb): Are you insured against potential losses?

Our house is insured by the company that runs those clever ads.

Remember that insurance (noun) is designed for protection:

My insurance policy will be expiring soon.

This contract provides insurance against a rate increase.

When you are taking affirmative steps to guarantee an outcome, ensure is often the best choice.


(verb): Please ensure that the belt is fastened securely before continuing.

Our quality control measures ensure that your data is safe.

Use assure when information, a pledge, or a guarantee is provided for the purpose of inspiring confidence.


(verb): I assure you, we will find the culprit.

We have been assured that construction will be completed as planned.



(verb): I was reassured after I heard the prognosis.

The gesture reassured me that his intentions are honorable.


(adjective): A few reassuring words would set our minds at ease.

(noun): I don’t blame her for wanting reassurance, but I can’t give it to her.

Are you sure you know when to use insure, ensure, and assure?





text box Words that cause confusion

rap or wrap?

“That’s a wrap!” is what a director says when filming is complete.

You can wrap a gift or wrap yourself in silk; your beloved might have you wrapped around his or her finger. But you don’t get a bad wrap (unless it’s at a sandwich shop)!

Incorrect usage as seen on a website

In addition to referring to a style of music, rap is slang for an accusation of criminal activity:

“I’m not will to take the rap for something I didn’t do.”

(A rap sheet refers to a criminal record.)

A bad rap can refer to any kind of negative charge or reputation.

A “bad rap” or “bum rap” is a slang expression used in the US

Rap can also mean a sharp blow:

The judge rapped her gavel to quell the unrest in the courtroom.

“Rap on the door later and we can go for a walk.”

In conclusion:

Doug gets a bad rap for being too wrapped up in his work, but he’s very good at what he does.


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text box Words that cause confusion

mantel and mantle

A mantel is a shelf above a fireplace.*

Mantle can be a noun or a verb and has a variety of meanings. Most commonly, mantle is used to refer to a cloak (as a garment or as “a figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority”) or to the part of the earth’s interior that lies beneath the crust.

The mantle is approximately 1,800 miles thick and makes up 84% of the planet’s total volume. (National Geographic Society)

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet is about the Russian writer and philosopher.

When she withdrew her mantle, I saw that her shoulders were bare.

Finally, a woman has taken on the mantle of leadership.

Mantle can also mean “something that covers, enfolds, or envelops.”

A mantle of snow covered the ground.

Our vision obscured by the thick mantle of smoke, we crept along the ground until we reached safety.

If you are a baseball fan, remember Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankee who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974:

The Mick wore the mantle of success with pride.


*Mantel can also mean “a beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace” and “the finish around a fireplace,” but most references will be to the shelf above a fireplace. (Mantle is a variant spelling, but mantel is preferred.)



text box Words that cause confusion


In spoken English, the words rain, rein, and reign all sound alike. Each can be used as a noun or as a verb.

Rain, of course, falls from the sky, just as other objects can rain down. Horses can be reined in or given free rein, as can emotions and people. Rulers reign, and their reign may be characterized by a particular quality or feature; that quality can also be said to reign. (The Reign of Terror occurred during the French Revolution.)


(noun): The forecast calls for rain this evening.

The rains came early that year.

(verb) Don’t rain on my parade!

Debris from the explosion rained upon the unsuspecting crowd.


(noun): Grab hold of the reins!

With free rein to experiment, the team developed innovative designs.

(verb): Rein in your goons, please.

Rein your horse as needed.


(noun): During his reign, peace prevailed.

The reign of  tyranny must end!

(verb): Chaos reigns supreme.

She reigned at a time of great change.

When you understand the differences, you will not only know how to use each word correctly, you might also devise humorous or satirical titles, headlines, or phrases.

The Reign of Error

The queen rains on plans for a palace party.

Is the rain still free?



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text box Words that cause confusion

discrete or discreet?

Discrete and discreet are both adjectives. The pronunciation is the same, and the spelling is similar, so they are easily confused.

Discrete means distinct and separate, whereas discreet means “intentionally unobtrusive” and inconspicuous or careful and circumspect (in speech or behavior).

Synonyms include subdued and understated for the first meaning of discreet and prudent for the second.



Discrete segments of the population have been identified as part of the study’s methodology.

The chronon has been proposed as a discrete and indivisible unit of time.


The discreet lighting and cozy furnishings helped me relax as I braced myself for a difficult conversation.

The discreet packaging gives no indication of the contents.

 These different meanings are also reflected in the adverbs discretely and discreetly.

Time can be measured discretely or continuously.

John asked Chris a series of personal questions, knowing that a camera was discreetly recording their interaction.

They’d been meeting discreetly for over a year before I learned about their relationship.




text box Words that cause confusion

Are you content or contented?

Content is one of those words that can be pronounced in two different ways, depending on the meaning.

Content (pron. CON-tent), meaning “the things that are held, included, or provided” (as in “The wine’s alcohol content is listed on the label”), is often used in the plural:

The table of contents is part of the book’s front matter.

The contents of this blog are suitable for minors.

Content (pron. kən-TENT), meaning “satisfied,” can be used as a noun (“After I leave, you can sleep to your heart’s content!”), an adjective (“I’m content here.”), or a verb (“The show was sold out, so we had to content ourselves with a trip to the planetarium.”).

Contented is an adjective (meaning “satisfied,” as above, or “feeling or expressing satisfaction”):

“They don’t have chocolate ice cream. You will have to be contented with vanilla.”

Contentment is the state of being contented.

So when would you use content, and when would you use contented?

The words are synonymous, but according to Bryan A. Garner,* content is more common as a predicate adjective (“I am content just sitting here.”) and the adjective contented commonly precedes a noun (“The contented puppy fell asleep.”).

Adverb forms are contently and contentedly:

He lived contentedly among the natives.

The sheep were contently grazing in the pasture.


* Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009).


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text box Words that cause confusion

its or it’s?

What’s the difference between its and it’s?
A lot!

Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” (If a pen belongs to Jay, then the pen is his. If a tail belongs to an animal, we can refer to its tail.)  As with his, hers, theirs, yours, and ours, no apostrophe is needed for its.

This is mine and that is yours.

My dad let me borrow his car.

This strategy has its drawbacks.

The bike has been returned to its rightful owner.

The species became extinct after its habitat was destroyed.

It’s is a contraction, a shortened form of it is or it has. (Contractions are commonly used in informal speech and writing.)

It’s all been said before, but I’ll say it again.

It’s true. I’m a terrible host.

It’s her fault!

The apostrophe indicates missing letters.

“G’night,” said Marge.

When reading dialogue, we understand that the word “goodnight” is intended by the speaker, who did not fully enunciate the word.

If you are tempted to add an apostrophe to its (or wondering if you need one), ask yourself whether its can be replaced with “it is” or “it has”:

It’s your call.
It is your call. 

See if it’s hurt.
See if it is hurt. 

It’s all right.
It is all right. 

It’s got nothing to do with you.
It has got nothing to do with you. 

Don’t pull its tail!
Don’t pull it is tail!  X

text box Words that cause confusion

desert and dessert

Don’t confuse a geographical region (desert) with the final course of a meal (dessert) or the act of desertion!


(noun): The desert is uninhabited.

We found an oasis in the desert.

(adjective): The desert climate is harsh.

The desert island provided a temporary haven.

(verb): If you desert now, you will be marked a traitor.

You cannot desert your friend in her time of need.


(noun): Dessert was the highlight of the evening.

The dessert was sweet and rich.

(A term such as dessert wine is considered as a unit, so “dessert” here is not an adjective. In fact, dessertspoon is written as one word.)

Note: The expression “just deserts ” (what is deserved) is not spelled ‘desserts’–unless, of course, it’s the name of a business that only sells sweet treats!




text box Words that cause confusion

shined or shone?

The verb* to shine can mean:

♦ to emit or reflect light (The sun is shining.)

♦ to be eminent, conspicuous, or distinguished (When she’s onstage, she really shines.)

♦ to be evident or clear (The truth will shine through.)

In the above examples, shine is used as an intransitive verb (v.i.); the verb does not have a direct object. Shine can also be a transitive verb (v.t.), meaning:

♦ to light or direct a light (“Shine that light over here, would ya?”)

♦ to make bright by polishing (“Please iron my shirts and shine my shoes.”)

In these instances, “something” (the object) is being shined (light; shoes).

Or should that be shone?

Shined and shone are sometimes used interchangeably (i.e., neither is incorrect), especially when used as an intransitive verb (and especially in the U.S.):

The light shone in the distance.

The light shined in the distance.

Most commonly, shone is preferred as the past tense (and past participle) of the intransitive verb shine when referring to something that is luminous.

The moon shone brightly.

Multitalented, Mark shone in many different capacities.

The flashlight shone when Sue turned it on.

Shined is used when polishing or shining an object (transitive verb).

He has shined a light on corruption within the agency.

Sue shined the flashlight on the intruder.

I shined my shoes until they shone.

Usage outside of the United States may differ.

*Shine can also be a noun. (“Would you like a shine, mister?”)