More Confusing Words

Here are a few more troublesome words to add to your list.


Who’s is a contraction for “who is.” If you want to say, “Who is  that man?” you will use “who’s” to say, “Who’s that man?”

If you want to know who owns that dog, you would say, “Whose dog is that?”


You might sign a waiver to renounce your right to something.

If you’re not sure if you should sign the waiver, you might be undecided and you might waver about making that decision.

used to/ have to

If you were in the habit of doing something in the past, then you used to do it. Don’t be fooled by the sound of the words. It is not correct to say use to when you mean used to.

Another expression that has a similar hard sound is have to. Believe it or not, I have seen it spelled hafto. Shudders!


Shear means to cut. Big scissors are sometimes called shears.

Sheer can mean vertical, as in the drop-off of a cliff. It can mean see-through, as in sheer (lacy or gauze) curtains. It can mean pure, as in “sheer nonsense.”


Loath without the “e” means “reluctant” to do something.

I am loath to walk down that dark alley in the middle of the night.

Loathe with an “e” means you dislike something intensely.

I loathe the taste of bitter medicine.


Again, it is a case of a final “e” or not.

If you can’t catch your breath, you can’t breathe properly.


Sooth is archaic for truth. Soothe with an “e” means to calm or comfort someone.



Italics – When to Use Them

You know how it is thought of as shouting if you use all caps in an email or in a blog comment. Think of italics in a similar way when you overuse them. While one or two shouts get your attention, if the shouting goes on and on and on, it becomes something you want to tune out. It is the same with italics.

But used properly, italics can be effective and serve a very useful purpose.

One of these uses in fiction writing, is to convey what a character is thinking. We use quotation marks to show conversation, but to show the reader what a character is thinking, we put his words in italics. It is not necessary to add a dialogue tag (no need to add “said Joe.”) The other important thing about using italics for thoughts is that the thought is in the present tense even if the rest of the text is in the past tense.

Here’s an example from my novel, Marlie.

“Might be starting to get dark soon. Mind if I walk you home?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “You don’t need to do that.” Now why did I say that? I’m so stupid.


Another use for italics is for words in a foreign language. Generally, if the word is not in the dictionary of the language you are using, it is considered a foreign word and should be italicized.

Try to work it into your writing in a way that the reader will know what the word means.

Here is an example from my novel, Orion’s Gift.

…as Antonio came out to clear the dishes away.

Algo más?” he asked.

I asked Kevin if he wanted anything more.


Italics can also be used to show emphasis.


He thinks my dog knocked over his garbage can? My dog?


Titles of books, magazines, movies, TV shows, and newspapers should be italicized, but smaller essays, articles, or poems within them should not be italicized.


I read an article in The New York Post entitled “Another Mass Shooting.”


Above all, don’t overdo it by italicizing too much. Italics are not as easy on the eyes as Roman font is, and don’t forget about it being too much of a good thing when it is overused. It loses its punch.

Headache Words

Even people who are comfortable in their native language run into word usage problems. English is especially difficult when it comes to word choice. In any kind of writing that you plan to publish or that others will read in a formal setting, proper word usage matters.

Here are some more troublesome words to add to your list.

gibe; jibe

A gibe is a taunt meant to hurt someone’s feelings – an insult.

Jibe means to fit. If something doesn’t jibe, it doesn’t go well with something. If people have opposing political views, for example, their ideas don’t jibe.

alright; all right

The correct form is all right. Avoid alright.

altogether; all together

When speaking of something as a whole, use altogether.

When a group is in one place, they are all together.


This is a combination of pass and time. It’s a way to pass the time, so it is a pastime. Note that there is only one “s” and one “t.”

Having said that, here are two other examples of similar words that are often used in the wrong way.

The time has passed us by.

It is past the time for talking.

Subtle differences, aren’t they?

pore; pour

Pour me some juice, please, while I pore over this sheet of instructions.

aid; aide

I can aid you in your work. That will be an aid to you. Then, if you like, I can be your aide.

grisly; grizzly

Something horrible can be described as grisly, if it is especially gruesome.

A grizzly is a very large bear. An attack by a grizzly can be very grisly.

Photo courtesy of Ken Johnstone.

Let’s try to use words correctly. I can’t bear it when I see them misused.