Accept or except? Affect or effect? Spelling words that sound similar.

by Liz Walter

Michelle Patrick/EyeEm/Getty

A reader of one of my recent posts asked for an explanation of the difference between aught and ought. Aught is a very old-fashioned word, found mainly in old literature or poetry. Strangely, it can mean ‘anything’ or ‘nothing’, depending on the context. Ought is both a less common spelling of aught and (much more importantly) a very common modal verb, used in sentences such as: You ought to take more exercise.

In reality, most people go through their whole lives without ever using the word aught, so they are not likely to confuse the two. However, the question made me think about more common words that my students (and also many mother-tongue speakers) often muddle up.

One tricky pair is affect and effect, because they are related in meaning and sound very similar. However, affect is always a verb and effect is almost always a noun:

The new laws will affect us.

They will have an effect on us.

Another is accept and except, again because they sound similar. Accept is a verb: Please accept this gift. Except is used as a preposition or conjunction and means ‘not including’: Everyone was invited except Tom.

One pair which I often notice my students getting wrong is quite and quiet. If you think about the pronunciation, it may help – the vowel sound in quiet is longer and has two sounds in it: Fred is friendly, but he’s quite quiet.

Principle and principal are two more words that are often used the wrong way round. Principal can be an adjective meaning ‘main’ or ‘most important’: The principal reasons for my decision are …

As a noun, it means a person who is in charge of an organization, especially a school: the principal’s office.

A principle is a noun only, and is a basic law: the principles of physics.

Two more advanced pairs of words which often cause problems for mother-tongue English speakers are compliment/complement and stationary/stationery. If one thing complements another, it makes the second thing better. For instance a nice drink could complement a particular dish. However, if you compliment someone (or pay them a compliment), you say something nice about them.

Stationary is an adjective, and means ‘not moving’. For example, we might talk about a stationary train. Stationery is something completely different – it is a noun and means the things we use for writing, such as paper and pens.

Of course, there are many pairs of words that sound the same but have different spellings (known technically as homophones). Be careful, for example, with pairs such as bare/bear, weather/whether and hole/whole. For those tricky words like there/their/they’re or who’s/whose see this post.

Do feel free to add any other examples of tricky spelling pairs!

29 thoughts on “Accept or except? Affect or effect? Spelling words that sound similar.

  1. I loved to read the comments on differences between words such as “affect, effect; stationary, stationery; accept, except”, etc. However the differences are well known and I expected the writer to go a bit deep into the subject. The pronunciation differences weren’t mentioned. It’s an interesting topic of discussion for many people because I’d been a teacher of English in Kuwait and India for over twenty years.

    1. Ranee

      I just read your comment and saw that you’re an English teacher in Kuwait and India. That is amazing. Thank you for being a teacher and spreading knowledge! You are appreciated!

  2. Ken S L.

    Dear Liz,
    Thank You so much, for the clarity on aught vs ought, for me. I did not know that, ‘ aught ‘ is a very old fashioned word. Perhaps I am too !
    It most likely stuck with me, from some of Shakespeare’s writings, that I always loved in school.

    Once again, you have done a splendid piece of work, in pointing out the many and often confusing, similar sounding words, of The Queens Language.

    Bravo !
    Ken S L.

  3. Oscar

    Hello Liz,

    Thanks very much indeed, I didn’t know there was a word > Stationary 🙂

    Would really appreciate it if you please can write about lie and lay, they are very confusing and I once put my foot in my mouth because I incorrectly/improperly used the verb .

    Another big challenge for new English Language learners is the difference between these three tenses; Past simple, Present perfect and Past perfect.

    Thanks again and best regards,
    Oscar

    1. Liz Walter

      Dear Oscar: Lie is an intransitive verb: He is lying on the floor./I want to lie down. Confusingly, the past tense is’lay’: He came in and lay on the floor.

      Lay is a transitive verb: Lay the sheet across the bed.

      However, even people whose mother tongue is English make mistakes with these verbs very frequently. Almost every yoga teacher I have had (and I’ve been doing yoga for years!) has told me to ‘lay on the floor’, which is not correct. So don’t feel bad about your own mistake!

  4. Oscar

    Dear Liz,

    Really appreciate it you took the time to elaborate further on this.
    Now I know that (lie) is an intransitive verb and that its past tense is (lay) whilst (lay) on the other hand is a transitive verb, with a different meaning obviously, and its past tense is (laid).

    Such a relief to at last get a good grasp of it, many thanks indeed.

      1. Oskar

        Let me make it simple,
        Is the a rule that states what word to follow after ‘in spite of ‘

      2. Liz Walter

        Either a noun: In spite of the danger, she went into the room.
        Or an -ing verb: In spite of owning a castle, he says he’s poor.

  5. Luckily, I never had any problems with spelling. In fact, although I am not a native of English, it was always usual for me to see a word for the first time and just memorise its spelling, while pronunciation was somehow intrinsically there.

  6. This particular post, for me, I say it’s a big WOW! I can boldly say the more I study here, the more knowledge I get, and so the more confidence I feel I have within my inner man (my spirit) every time I happen to pay a visit to this web page just to study one or two things to enhance my English knowledge. This lecture has really help me a lot in my blogging passion: proofreading and editing is now a simple thing to do for me. I can write professionally without the help of any grammar checker app! Even if there’s an error, it won’t be too much, and I easily and quickly sight it for correction without any difficulty because of the knowledge I have had here! Thus, I say a BIG THANK YOU to you, Liz Walter.

    Thanks

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