The Grammar Police: Commonly Confused Words

Common spelling errors aren’t always a matter of misspelled words. Some words sound the same or similar, but have different spellings and meanings. Familiarize yourself with the correct use of these commonly confused words, so you can impress your readers with your command of the English language!

Complement/Compliment
“Complement” refers to something that fills up, makes perfect or complete; a counterpart:
That blue dress complements your eyes.
The wine our hostess chose was a wonderful complement to the meal.

A “compliment” is praise:
We gave the hostess our compliments on her exceptional dinner.

Stationery/Stationary
“Stationery” is writing paper and other writing materials:
She wrote the letter on her finest stationery.

“Stationary” means not moving or changing; immobile:
The population of the country was stationary.
I ride my stationary bicycle for exercise.

Affect/Effect
These two words are probably the most commonly confused words in the English language. “Effect” is most commonly used as a noun, although it is also a verb. “Affect” is commonly used as a verb, but it can also be a noun. No wonder we’re all so confused!

“Affect,” when used as a verb, means to have an influence on:
A child’s behavior at dinner may affect his chances of getting dessert.

“Effect,” when used as a noun, refers to a result or impression:
I am concerned about the effect that TV violence has on my children.
The sunlight gives a lovely effect as it ripples across the water.

If you use the guidelines above you will be right most of the time. Here are a few less common uses, to make sure you are totally confused:

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“Effect” can also be used as a verb, meaning “to create”:
We are trying to effect a change in our environment by not adding pollutants to the air and water.

“Affect” can mean “to deliberately cultivate or make a display of.”
My sister has affected a fake French accent.

In psychiatric lingo, with the emphasis on the first syllable, “affect” can be a noun that refers to emotion. Unless you’re in the field, you’ll probably never need to use the word this way.

A few more hints: the proper expression is “take effect” (become effective) and not “take affect.”
And the stuff that belongs to you are your personal effects.

Principal/Principle
“Principal” refers to something or someone who is of the highest rank or importance.
My daughter is portraying the principal character in the school play.

“Principle” refers to a code of conduct, laws or doctrine, or underlying laws and facts of nature.
John’s principles wouldn’t allow him to cheat on the test.
Cosmological principles are basic assumptions about the universe we have gained from observation.

High schools have principals who are in charge of school administration. Loans have principal, which is the amount of money you borrowed, but the bankers may not have principles!

Weather/Whether
I actually spotted this goof in a recent AC article, the author of which shall remain nameless!

“Weather” is the condition of the atmosphere: wet or dry, cold or hot, calm or storm, clear or cloudy.
I hope rainy weather doesn’t ruin our picnic.

“Weather” can also mean to bear up against and come safely through:
We weathered the storm in our small rowboat.

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“Whether” is a conjunction that implies alternatives or possibilities:
I don’t whether to have chicken or steak for supper.
I’m not sure whether Bob is going to the movies with us or not.

Don’t rely on spell checkers to catch these types of mistakes. As long as you have the word spelled correctly, it won’t be caught! When in doubt, consult a dictionary.