Understanding Misused and Misunderstood Words When Writing

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Proofreading is extremely important, but we can’t catch a typo or the wrong word if we don’t know the difference between the wrong word and the right word. Even the best writers occasionally make mistakes, often unaware of their errors because no one has ever pointed the errors out to them.

I work with a lot of authors, especially self-published authors. Unfortunately, some of them write second-rate books because they are not very good writers, or they did not hire an editor or proofreader to review their work. Even the best authors make occasional mistakes. I’ve seen split infinitives in books by Charles Dickens and typos in bestselling authors’ books from major publishing houses. A second pair of eyes never hurts, and it’s always in your best interest as a writer to learn everything you can about spelling, grammar, and choosing the right word—and there is always something more to learn.

Following is a short quiz so you can test yourself on some of the most frequent mistakes I see authors make by misspelling and confusing words as well as word choice. Some of these errors are even ones I used to make until someone pointed them out to me.

Take the test and see how you score. If you’re going to hire an editor or proofreader, you might want to have him or her (not “them”) take it as well to see how he or she (not “they”) score before you hire that person (not “them”).

In the following sentences, choose the correct word for each sentence’s context. Don’t worry. I sprinkled in a few easy ones. Don’t peek at the answer key. I’ll give some explanations there about why some of the answers are correct.


  1. The (hoard/horde) of people filled the beach.
  2. The dragon kept his (hoard/horde) in a dark cave that never saw the light of day.
  3. When you are hungry you need to (wet/whet) your appetite.
  4. I could not use the towel to dry myself because it was (wet/whet).
  5. I have some interesting news that should (peak/pique) your curiosity.
  6. He likes to get a sneak (peak/peek) at upcoming movies.
  7. The (peak/peek) of his career was becoming president of the corporation.
  8. I’ll just eat a (couple/couple of) grapes since I’m hungry.
  9. You cannot go to college (if/whether) you don’t graduate from high school.
  10. I wanted to know (if/whether) you wanted to go to the baseball game with me.
  11. I went to the store (and bought/to buy) milk.
  12. He bought paint (and he painted/so he could paint) the bathroom.
  13. If you are a therapist, you must be (discreet/discrete) when it comes to patient confidentiality.
  14. I think there is a (discreet/discrete) difference between those two shades of yellow.
  15. She added more cream, thereby (lightning/lightening) the color of the coffee.
  16. When the (lightening/lightning) flashed, the whole sky lit up.
  17. When we (lose/loose) a game, it means we need to practice more.
  18. The dress felt (lose/loose) since I had lost five pounds.
  19. Sometimes I like to (wonder/wander) down the street to smell the roses.
  20. It’s a (wonder/wander) that anyone would get this question wrong but I see it all the time.

Answer key:

All the words above can easily be found in dictionaries with definitions if you don’t understand the definition given the context above. I’ve provided some comments below on those that may seem more like a stylistic or usage choice.

  1. Horde
  2. Hoard
  3. Whet
  4. Wet
  5. Pique
  6. Peek
  7. Peak
  8. Couple of: “I have a couple dollars” will sound fine to most people, and those writers who like to tighten their language may object to “couple of dollars” but it is always proper to insert “of” after “couple.” Typically “couple” by itself has been common especially in places like the Midwest United States and is probably a regionalism, but it is not actually correct.
  9. If
  10. Whether: People frequently misuse “if” by inserting it where “whether” belongs. “If” should be used for cause and effect. To say, “I was wondering if you were going to the movie” has no cause and effect implied so “whether” is correct. By contrast, “If you are going to the movie, I will go with you” does show cause and effect so it would be correct.
  11. To buy: “I went to the store and bought milk” is not technically a usage error, but it is not logical unless you did not intend to buy milk when you went to the store. If your purpose in going to the store was to buy milk, your words should reflect that purpose.
  12. So he could paint: Similar to #11, here you are buying the paint for a purpose. Buying the paint and painting the bathroom have a connection between them so using “so” reflects that relationship. “And” is probably the most overused conjunction in English. “And” implies equality between two phrases, such as “I like running, and I like walking.” “But” implies opposition as in “I like running, but I don’t like walking.” “So” implies a relationship between two items, one leading or resulting from the other as in, “I wanted new shoes, so I went to the mall to buy a pair.”
  13. Discreet
  14. Discrete
  15. Lightening
  16. Lightning
  17. Lose
  18. Loose
  19. Wander
  20. Wonder


20-19: Great job! You should make up your own language and have it named for you.

18-17: You are highly skilled in English.

16-13: You are educated but may want someone else to check over your work just to be safe.

12-10: You have a basic grasp of English.

9 or less: Go back to school, or hire a professional editor.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on March 18, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I thoroughly agree with having someone else proofread one's work. I'm a stickler for correct spelling and always have been. I write children's books (the Prophecies of Ballitor series), and therefore feel that it's even more important, if that's possible, to make sure the spelling and grammar is correct. I've learnt a lot about the correct use of grammar since I've started writing and frequently tie myself up in knots over the use of 'that' vs 'which', as in "his breath left long streams of vapour THAT / WHICH lingered in the air behind him"! (I have double checked this post for spelling and grammatical errors!)

  2. Irene, thank you so much for this post. It was very insightful. It's difficult for me to catch mistakes when I've become 'close' to my work. Proofreaders are essential.Tracy

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