Tag Archives: commonly confused words

Uncommon Words, Commonly Confused

There are commonly confused words—let’s and lets, for example, or it’s and its. Everyone uses these words in everyday writing, and learning to distinguish them is a worthwhile pursuit. But today, let’s talk about a different kind of commonly confused words: words we use rarely that sound like words we use often.

Maybe you’ve only ever heard these words in conversation or in a movie. Maybe you’ve seen them in print but haven’t noticed the spelling. So when you pull one of these words out of the back of your memory, you automatically go with the spelling of the word’s homonym (the word it sounds and looks like). Totally natural; happens all the time.

Let’s look at a few of these commonly confused, uncommonly used words. The definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Uncommon Word Common Homonym
Censer: A covered incense burner swung on chains in a religious ritual. Censor: A person who supervises conduct and morals.
Gambol: To skip about in play. Gamble: To play a game for money or property.
Humus: A brown or black complex variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil. Hummus: A paste of pureed chickpeas usu. mixed with sesame oil or sesame paste and eaten as a dip or sandwich spread.
Raze: To scrape, cut, or shave off. To destroy to the ground. Raise: To cause or help to rise to a standing position.
Whither: To what place. [“Whither goest thou?”] Wither: To shrivel from or as if from loss of bodily moisture.

Stay tuned for more of these rarely used but easily misused words; I have a long list of them. And if you have ideas for words that fit into this category, please share them in the comments.

Let’s vs. Lets

Since the name of this blog is Let’s Just Be Clear, I figured I should start by highlighting a commonly confused pair of words: let’s and lets.

Let’s is a contraction of let us, an imperative phrase that people use to make or respond to suggestions. The apostrophe is there to indicate that some characters have been omitted (in this case, the space and the u).

Let’s go to the movies.
Let’s pretend we’re kangaroos.
Let’s eat breakfast food for dinner.

Lets is a verb that usually means allows or permits.

He lets his dog sit on the couch.
Jacob works hard all week, but on the weekends he lets it all hang out.
The judge lets criminals off easy.

I have a few tricks for figuring out whether to use let’s or lets. The first thing to check is where the word appears in the sentence. Let’s usually starts a sentence, and lets usually comes later, as in the examples above. This is not a foolproof test, though; there are exceptions both ways:

Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves.
Lets his lawn grow for months without cutting it, does he? That’s not very neighborly.

Another test to try is to plug in let us and see if it works. I like to imagine it in my snobbiest accent:

Let us adjourn for the day.
Let us imagine we could start all over again.
X My roommate just let us the dishes pile up.

You can also try substituting allows [… to]:

✓ Some people handle rejection well, but Sophia allows it to get to her.
✓ Our boss allows us to leave early on most Fridays.
X “Should we get started?” “Yes, allows to.”

Whenever you are unsure of whether to use let’s or lets, try these tests, and you’ll probably quickly find the correct spelling.

Knowing when to throw in an apostrophe and when to leave it out is hard for many people, and I’ll address the broader issue and other examples in future blogs.

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