As an adult person in the world, you should already know the difference between its and it’s; to, too, and two; and their, there and they’re. For that matter, you should already know affect vs. effect and lay vs. lie. That's English 101.
What's that? You don’t actually remember the difference between affect vs. effect and lay vs. lie? Quick reminder: Affect is a verb, meaning “to influence,” and effect is a noun, meaning “an influence.” Try to remember “cause and effect.” “Lay” means “to put down or set down something”; “lie” means “to rest” (or, you know, to fib). Try to remember, “A chicken lays an egg, and then it lies down.” Making eggs is hard work!
Now let's skip ahead to the senior-level stuff, the stuff your spell-checker will never catch but you need to know.
All right vs. alright
“Alright” is not a real word. Like “a lot” (not “alot”), it’s always two words. All right? All right.
Cache vs. cachet
Cachet means prestige. A cache, on the other hand, is a hiding place or a bunch of something—a cache of weapons or a cache of files. It’s also the first thing your IT guy will ask you, so before you even call, clear your cache.
Can vs. may
“Can” implies ability; “may” implies permission. To remember the difference, picture the school bully:
- “Can I get up now?”
- “I dunno, can you?”
To recall the permission aspect of “may,” bring to mind the Tori Spelling Lifetime TV movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?
Compliment vs. complement
To “compliment” is to praise: You compliment your boxing rival on his left hook. A “complement” is when something completes something else or makes it whole: Your boxing rival’s blue trunks really complement his white shoes. If something is “complementary” to something else, it brings it together: Salt and lime are complementary to a shot of tequila. “Complimentary” means free: “These peanuts have been touched by everyone in the bar, but they’re complimentary.”
Cord vs. chord
If it has to do with anything but music notes, it’s “cord.” Cords can be umbilical, vocal, spinal or spermatic. Cord can mean an amount of wood or be short for corduroy. The only time you should use “chord” is for music.
Fewer vs. less
I think people started to get confused when “10 Items or Less” aisles started popping up. That’s wrong, and don’t you forget it. If the focus is on a number, use “fewer”: “Elvis made fewer albums than the Beatles.” If the focus is on degree or amount, use less. “For less than $2 a day, you can sponsor a baby alpaca.”
Forwards, backwards, towards, outwards, onwards, etc.
Do you live in the UK? No? Then stop using the s on the ends of these words. You’re an American, and Americans don’t look backwards! Just, um, backward.
Home in vs. hone in
“Hone” means “to sharpen” and “home” means “to direct attention toward” or “proceed.” You hone (sharpen) your pitch so you can home in on (proceed with, focus on, approach) a deal.
i.e. vs. e.g.
The difference between these abbreviations is little tough to remember, but i.e. stands for “id est,” which means “that is,” and “e.g.” stands for “exempli gratia,” which means “for example.” Think of “i.e.” as “in other words” and you’ll see that they mean totally different things.
- Opera tenors (e.g., Luciano Pavarotti) sing in a higher range than baritones (e.g., Victor Braun).
- I heard that Pavarotti liked to sunbathe in the buff (i.e., naked).
And when you mean to say “for example,” never, ever use “ex.” That’s not a thing.
Imply vs. infer
These are commonly confused but decidedly distinct. First comes the implication (a hinting at without stating directly), then comes the inference (the drawing or deducing of a conclusion). In Theodore Bernstein’s classic The Careful Writer, he describes the implier as the pitcher and the inferrer as the catcher, and I can’t think of a better or more succinct way to remember the difference than that.
Founder vs. flounder
Both signify failing, so it’s a little confusing. A flounder is a fish, so remember that “flounder” means to flail like a fish out of water. “Founder” is what a ship does when it sinks. If you’re saying someone is indecisive, say he’s floundering. If you’re saying someone straight-up failed, he foundered. If you’re saying a person who established a company failed, the founder foundered. And that’s what we grammarians call humor.
Lead vs. led
I have no idea why so many people think “lead” is the spelling of the past tense of “lead,” but you’d be amazed how often I come across this one. Yes, it’s an irregular verb, and those can be tough, but think of the similar construction bleed and bled. “Yesterday I cut my lip and it bleed everywhere”? No, no, no.
Leapt, burnt, dreamt, knelt, etc.
I thought we established that you’re an American, not a Brit. Here in the US of A we put an “-ed” on the end of our verbs, and we like it! Our lizards are leaped, our toast is burned, our delusions are dreamed and Zod is kneeled before.
Premier vs. premiere
“Premier” is an adjective meaning first. “Premiere” is a noun (and sometimes a verb) that indicates a first showing or performance. Tricky stuff. In order to sort this one out, we have to go back to the fourth grade for a moment: A noun is a person, place or thing; adjectives modify nouns; verbs describe an action.
- Here “premier” is an adjective: It was John Cena’s premier time hosting Saturday Night Live.
- Here “premiere” is a noun: John Cena was spotted at the premiere of Amy Schumer’s new movie.
- Here “premieres” is a verb: John Cena’s movie premieres next month.
Sneaked vs. snuck
I acknowledge that this probably a losing battle, but it still must be said: The correct past tense of “sneak” is “sneaked,” not “snuck.” If you say “snuck” in my presence, I will judge you. You are hereby warned, and you cannot say my hostility snuck up on you.