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Avoiding Commonly Misused Words


When we talk to other people, they get to hear the tone and inflection of our voice. We are also able to judge their body language, their facial expressions and their hand gestures, and therefore we normally get the correct understanding of the intended message from that person.

The written word, however, can often leave us with no idea of the writer's mood. It also leaves little room – if none at all – for mistakes. There are common misspelled or misused words that, when they occur in any form of writing, can confuse readers, leave them dumbfounded, and convey a completely different message than the one actually intended. The differences between these words might not be detected at all when the words are spoken, but in writing, they jump out from the page – with readers demanding correction or pleading more "writerly" caution.

Here are some misused words and mistakes that less careful writers often make or get confused with. Make sure you avoid the same mistakes, lest you risk irritating your readers.

It's vs. Its

  • "It's" – with an apostrophe – is a contraction for "it is" or "it has". Example: "It's (It is) a wonderful world." "It's (It has) been a pleasure to meet you." "I love Mad Men. It's an awesome TV show."
  • "Its" serves as a possessive pronoun, just like "his" or "her". It means "belonging to it" or "of it". Example: "The Concorde blew its tire on landing." "I love Mad Men because of its great acting and terrific script."

Lets vs. Let's

  • "Lets" is a verb form of "to let," meaning to allow or permit. Example: "The mother lets her children watch television before their bedtime." "He lets her do the talking all the time."
  • "Let's" serves as a contraction for "let us". Example: "Let's go to the studio and record some new songs."

You're vs. Your / They're vs. Their


  • "You're" and "they're" – much like "it's" – are contractions, meaning "you are" and "they are," respectively. Example: "You're (You are) going to miss a lot if you don't show up at tonight's party." "They're (They are) insisting that John join them for Clara's birthday bash."
  • Like "its", "your" and "their" are possessives. Example: "I love your socks!" "The family is vacationing at their beach house in Florida."

Complimentary vs. Complementary

  • "Complimentary" is an adjective that means "compliments of", and it is often used to refer to gifts or objects that one typically expects to pay for, but which they receive for free, as "compliments". Example: "The staff gave us a complimentary cocktail when we checked in at the hotel."
  • "Complementary", also an adjective, means "matching," "corresponding," or "harmonizing", and is often used to note the appropriateness of a pair. Example: "Butter is complementary to bread." "The two basketball players have individual styles of play that are so complementary to each other."

Disburse vs. Disperse

  • "Disburse" means to "pay out". Example: "Last week, the bank disbursed the funds for my house loan."
  • "Disperse," meanwhile, is a verb that means to scatter, distribute, share, or break out. Example: "The stars disperse uniformly around the galaxy." "The demonstrators will disperse once they hear the sound of police sirens."

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