Here’s a list of words I routinely have to look up. Many of these I used incorrectly until quite recently, because I didn’t even realize they were different. A few others I’ve seen other people use incorrectly, so they were on my mind. We won’t rehash the to/too/two or there/their/they’re nonsense, because everyone knows those are different even if they mess it up sometimes. These are words many people don’t even realize are different words.
Lull vs Loll:
Lull means to put to sleep.
Ex: I lulled the baby to sleep.
This is easy to remember, because you can think lullaby.
Loll means to recline or dangle loosely.
Ex: The baby’s head lolled to the side as I lulled him to sleep.
The more common mistake seems to be writing “lull” when “loll” should be used.
Clamber vs Clamor:
Clamber means to climb up with all your body parts.
Ex: I clambered up the fire pole at the first sound of the alarm.
Clamor is an outcry or loud noise.
Ex: The protesters clamored their demands.
This distinction also has a trick. Climb has a “b” and so does clamber, so clamber means to climb. I’m not sure the error happens one way or the other more often, because it’s not clear to me most people even realize these are different words.
Pour vs Pore:
Pour means to dump a liquid, usually onto or into something else.
Ex: I poured myself a glass of orange juice for breakfast.
Pore means to gaze or study with much attention.
Ex: I pored over the photograph of a person pouring orange juice for a clue to the mystery.
I think the trick here is to remember that pore is a word. It seems to me most people use “pour” for everything without realizing the other one exists and is different. If you do confuse them, pour has a “u” just like dump and liquid.
Palate vs Palette:
Palate is the roof of your mouth.
Ex: You have a refined palate to be able to distinguish Merlot from Cabernet by taste alone.
Palette is the board you mix paint on.
Ex: Bob Ross sets up his palette carefully before he begins any painting.
I must admit that I wrote a whole short story about a painter where I accidentally used “palate” everywhere. I caught it upon revision, but I was alarmed at how unaware of this I was. I’ve yet to come up with an easy way to remember the difference, but this is probably another case of being aware that “palette” exists.
Flare vs Flair:
Flare refers to a bright light.
Ex: The motor on the boat died, so we used an emergency flare to signal help.
Flair refers to a talent or style.
Ex: My job as a server requires me to wear thirty-seven pieces of flair on my uniform.
The most common place I see this misused is in the expression: she has a flair for writing. Do not use “flare” in that case. Otherwise, I think people mostly know these are different words and what the difference is.
Cattle vs Chattel:
Cattle are bovine livestock, in other words, a group of cows.
Ex: I trained my dog to herd the cattle.
Chattel is mostly a legal term referring to movable possessions.
Ex: My cattle are my most valuable chattel.
Pretty much no one misuses cattle and pretty much no one has a need to use chattel, so you’re probably safe here. Various unsavory internet message boards can get them confused. For example, 19th century English Common Law had married women as legal chattel of their husband (this was called coverture). If you bring this up while arguing on the internet, it’s best not to use the word “cattle.”
For the record, they both derive from the Middle English “chatel,” meaning “personal property.”
Gantlet vs Gauntlet:
One “runs the gantlet” for punishment, and one “throws down the gauntlet” as a challenge. Let’s not dwell on this or argue over it. These are expressions, and the words are rarely used outside of those two expressions. And yes, the famous 1985 arcade game was misnamed.
All right vs Alright:
This is a trick! “Alright” is not a word. Always use “all right” when you feel yourself about to write “alright.”
I can think of a few more, but they fall more into the “I know they’re different but can’t remember which is which” category (born/borne, hoard/horde, tortuous/torturous, etc). I wanted to keep this to post to words many people might not realize are different at all.