Category Archives: Confusing Words

If you have difficulty remembering the meaning or spelling of particular words, look up the proper usage before finalizing or submitting important information.

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“Immigration” is a hot topic in the news these days. A country’s immigration policy determines who may lawfully enter the country to live and work.

An immigrant is a person who has moved from another country.* (Note that the term does not denote legal status; an immigrant may have entered the country legally or illegally.)

Immigrate is the verb form, describing the action of immigrating.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States before I was born.

Migrate is a related word.

The Pilgrims migrated to North America to establish a new colony.

Migration, however, pertains more to geography than to politics and borders. (A person might migrate to a different region in search of work, for example.)

The miners migrated west in their search for gold.

Migration often refers to seasonal travel or movement.

The annual whale migration has begun.

Not all birds migrate.

A migrant is one who migrates, whether human or animal. Migrant is often used when referring to workers who are not living in a permanent residence during their employment.

Migrant farm workers are also known as migratory agricultural workers.

An emigrant is a person who has left his or her country of residence to settle elsewhere.

His parents emigrated from Germany to avoid persecution.

In short, you are an immigrant to your new country; you are an emigrant from your old country.

Many young men emigrated from the United States to Canada to avoid the draft.

My parents immigrated to the United States after they were married.

I plan to emigrate next year.

I immigrated last year.


*Immigrant can refer a person who relocates to a new country or to a plant or animal “that becomes estalished in an area where it was previously unknown.”

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evoke and invoke

Writers (and speakers) choose words to evoke a desired response, whether we seek to arouse sympathy or inspire action. The definition of evoke, according to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, is to “call forth or up” (conjure); to “cite especially with approval or for support” (invoke); to “bring to mind or recollection” and to “re-create imaginatively.”

The sight of the ring evoked memories of happier times.

Music evokes strong emotions in some listeners.

Invoke can have a similar meaning (“to make someone feel a particular emotion or see a particular image in their minds”) but is more commonly used when calling upon a rule (such as the Fifth Amendment) or deity for help or support:

The defendant plans to invoke her constitutional privilege to avoid self-incrimination.

The priestess invoked the spirits of the ancestors.

The writer has developed a ritual to invoke his muse.

Invocation refers to the act of asking for help or support, or to the the prayer itself:

The meeting opened with an invocation.

The atheist’s invocations influenced the judges.

Invocative and evocative are adjectives. When something is evocative, it evokes (or is likely to evoke) an emotional response:

The photographer is known for his evocative images.

Invocative pertains to invocation. (Invocation is often used in the practice of magical rituals):

As her invocative powers declined, so too did the number of clients seeking her services.

Provoking someone also arouses a response (usually anger or another strong emotion), sometimes intentionally.

He was provoked into action by the taunts and jeers of the group.

Something that is provocative is stimulating or exciting (sexually or otherwise):

Her essay contained some thought-provoking ideas, but her provocative attire caused a stir.

Provocation is an act that incites or stimulates:

Without provocation, the man attacked a pedestrian.

 Remember, your words are powerful; they can evoke, invoke, or provoke!

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passed and past

Passed or past?

These two words are confusing because they sound the same and sometimes the meaning is similar.

Passed is almost always a verb.

Miranda drove past me on the highway. (drove is the verb)

Miranda passed me on the highway. (passed is the verb)


(adjective): Stanley is past president of the organization.

I’ve been preoccupied these past few months.

(preposition): I’ll meet you at half past five.

Walk past the statue in the center of town and you’ll find the theater on your right.

(noun): In the past, a quorum was sufficient; now, all members must be present.

Ask her about her past.

(adverb): Months went past but no letter came.

I was sitting on the porch when Alan walked past.


(verb): The teacher passed out the exam.

He passed out after the party.

She passed by me without saying a word.

The measure passed without objection.

Joe passed a bad check and was arrested.

Passed can be used as a noun referring to those who have “passed away” (Say a prayer for the passed.) and as an adjective in games and sports (e.g., a passed ball), but passed is most commonly used as the past tense of the verb to pass.

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eminent, immanent, imminent

Eminent, immanent, and imminent are all adjectives. (The noun forms are eminence, immanence, and imminence).

With a meaning similar to “inherent,” immanence is often part of philosophical discussions about whether divinity permeates (dwells within) or transcends (is separate from) a Supreme Being’s creations. Eminence is used in some religions (e.g., Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox) when addressing certain members of the clergy.

Something (or someone) eminent stands out (one meaning is to jut out or project); thus, an eminent person stands out from the crowd in some respect. A preeminent (sometimes hyphenated, pre-eminent) person is outstanding and superior to all others.

If something is imminent, it is about to happen (immediately!).

[Immanant is a mathematical term.]



(adjective): The eminent scholar approached the podium.

A team of eminent researchers gathered to discuss the latest findings.

[Note that eminent domain (noun) is a legal doctrine that permits a government to take private property for public use.]


(noun): He rose to eminence during the Renaissance. (prominence would also work here)

“Good morning, Your Eminence.”


(adjective): I was in imminent danger of being discovered and had to act quickly.

Her death is imminent.


(adjective): Do you believe that God is transcendent to creation or immanent throughout it?

The immanent beauty of nature could not be duplicated.


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loan and borrow

A loan (noun) is a sum of money that will be repaid, or permission to use something for a period of time.

“I have applied for a loan. I want to go back to school.”

The phrase “on loan” is an idiomatic expression.

The exhibit is on loan from the museum.

The verb loan is accepted in American English as a substitute for lend:

Can you loan me some money until my next paycheck?

Do not substitute loan for figurative uses of lend, such as:

Can I lend a hand?

Lend me your ears.


The verb lend can be used in several ways:

We are not in a position to lend you money at this time.

The complexity of the subject does not lend itself to summary description.

Recent evidence lends credence to the theory.

Note: The past tense (and past participle) of lend is lent.

 “Charles lent me his car while mine was in the shop.”

“I wish to thank my editor, who has lent considerable support and expertise to this project from the outset.”

loan or borrow?

When you wish to borrow something, you seek a loan, and you become the borrower:

Can I borrow your copy?

I borrowed the money for the operation.

When you allow someone to borrow something from you, (i.e., you lend it), you are the lender:

“I lent you money last month.”

Borrowed and loaned are not interchangeable!


I borrowed money from the bank.

The bank loaned me money to buy a car.


My sister borrowed me her coat. X

(My sister lent me her coat. Or: My sister loaned me her coat. )

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affect and effect

Both affect and effect can be used as nouns or as verbs, though affect is most commonly used as a verb (to act upon or influence). The effect is the result produced.


(verb): Will the drought affect the price of food?

The disorder affected his ability to perform his job.

The loss affected her deeply.

(noun) (Note that the pronunciation differs when affect refers to an emotional or psychological state): Blunted affect is often a sign of depression.


(noun): The effect of the drug was immediate.

Many drugs have side effects.

The special effects were spectacular!

The law will go into effect next year.

A tornado watch is in effect until midnight.

(verb): Therapy is designed to effect change.



(adjective): Apply the ointment to the affected area.

Her kindness is sincere, not affected.

(This last use is similar to affectation (noun): Her affectations fooled no one.)


(adjective): The new policy is effective immediately.

His methods are effective.

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The words elicit and illicit sound somewhat similar, but they mean very different things!

Illicit means forbidden or unlawful; elicit is similar to evoke and means “to draw out.”


(verb): The announcement elicited cheers from the crowd.

Jack made a funny face, hoping to elicit a smile from Jennifer.


(adjective): The illicit photographs were removed soon after they were posted on the site.

Her illicit activities led to her downfall.

Licit is a word that means “permissible”; hence, with the addition of the prefix il- the meaning changes to not permissible, as with words such as illegal and illogical.


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sulfur or sulphur?

As an editor, I read about many subjects.

In this editorial, an editor of the journal Nature Chemistry explains the choice to use sulfur, not sulphur, in that publication.

In brief, the naming of chemical elements is determined by an international organization (much as an international group of astronomers decided that Pluto should no longer be classified as a “planet”), so the differences in spelling that are frequently found in the U.S. and the U.K. (e.g., color/colour) are irrelevant.

As the article notes, the chemical element phosphorus (a noun) is often confused with phosphorous, which is the adjective used to refer to something “relating to or containing phosphorus.” (To further confuse things, there is also a “phosphorous acid”!)

I frequently advise people to look up the spelling (and meaning) of words they don’t use often if they have any doubts about correctness. But in this instance, so many reputable publications use “phosphorous” instead of “phosphorus” that a quick search would not reveal the error.






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wrack or rack?

These two words have confused enough people over the centuries that they have become somewhat interchangeable.

When referring to a frame that holds and stores things (such as a magazine rack), always use rack. When you are wracked with pain, or you are racking your brain, either use is acceptable. Racking is probably more common, though preferences may vary for North American and British spelling.  

As a noun, wrack can mean seaweed and other debris that accumulates on beaches; as a verb, wrack has a similar meaning to wreck.

Commonly used phrase: wrack and ruin

The neighborhood has gone to wrack and ruin since I left.


We searched the beach wrack for interesting seashells.

Bladder wrack (also bladderwrack) is a good source of iodine.

A careless driver, he wracked his new car within a week of purchasing it.


“I’ll pick up a rack of lamb for the party,” Henrietta told her husband.

“Please place these brochures in the rack on the wall.”

“Rack ’em up!” Jared said as he grabbed a pool cue.

“I’ll rack my brain until I remember that woman’s name!”

The rack was an early instrument of torture used to extract information and confessions.


Driving in a blizzard is a nerve-racking experience.

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fictional or fictitious?

Both fictional and fictitious refer to something that is imagined or invented. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, fictitious “implies fabrication and suggests artificiality or contrivance more than deliberate falsification or deception”; an example given is ‘fictitious characters.’ (However, another example given for the same entry is: “She gave a fictitious address on the application.” That seems like ‘deliberate falsification’ to me!) (Fictional, according to Merriam-Webster, is “not real and existing only in the imagination.”)

Either adjective can be used in reference to a work of fiction, and neither necessarily connotes an intention to deceive or defraud. (In contrast, deception is intended when using words such as counterfeit, impostor, and sham.)

A fictitious name is an assumed name you adopt for your business that is different from your personal name. A fictional character is an imaginary person represented in a work of fiction. Fictitious is the broader of the two words. Use fictional when discussing a work of fiction (novel, play, film, story); fictitious can refer to such works, and it can also refer to other fabricated and invented identities.


The author created a fictional universe as the setting for her novels.

The fictional characters in this classic film are both memorable and endearing.


A corporation is a fictitious entity created by law.

The agent uses a fictitious name for undercover activities.