by Liz Walter
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.
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.
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!