David Appleyard's English Language User Guides and References
Page Contents
Introduction Danger List: E-O
Danger List: A-D Danger List: P-Z

 

Making Sense of Vexing Vocabulary

In this section of our English User Guides we'll attempt to clarify differences in meaning between words which, because they look or sound very similar, tend to cause confusion among both foreign students of English and native speakers alike. 

It will soon become apparent that, in order to distinguish between homonyms of entirely different meaning, British English has retained a richer variety of spellings (e.g. check and cheque, tire and tyre, or story and storey). So it is probably fair to say there is less scope for errors in AmE (American English) than in BrE (British English).

Please judge for yourselves, and comments or suggestions are always welcome!

David V. Appleyard

A-D

Confusing Words Examples of Usage, or Other Clarification
accede + exceed (1) He acceded to the man's request.
(2) Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1953.
Too many drivers exceed the speed limit in built-up areas.
accept + except (1) The corrupt officials had accepted bribes.
(2) They accepted they would have to lose their jobs.
(1) Low-income families are excepted from paying the new tax.
(2) Everyone except John came to the party.
access + excess (1) The thief gained access to the office through a side door.
(2) He then proceeded to access the safe.
(2) When he discovered it was empty, he left in an access of anger.
(1) Airlines will no longer tolerate excess hand-luggage.
(2) Some terrible excesses are committed in the name of religion.
adapt + adopt (1) It took the Eskimo quite a long time to adapt to life in the Congo.
(2) Microsoft software has been adapted to work on Apple computers.
(3) The author J.K. Rowling could not imagine having her quintessentially
British "Harry Potter" stories specially adapted for American audiences.
(1) They childless couple adopted an orphaned two-year-old girl from Korea.(2) The local school board will adopt strict new penalties to counter bullying.
(3) More Japanese companies are adopting western styles of management.(4) BrE The Conservative Party adopted David Cameron as leader in 2005.
affect + effect The noisy crowd affected the tennis star's concentration.
(1) The thick fog had no effect on her arrival time.
(2) The prime minister is trying to effect policy changes.
allude + elude When the President mentioned "evil forces" he was alluding to the terrorists.
(1) They will not be able to elude justice indefinitely.
(2) It eludes me how suicide bombers can possibly imagine they're ever going to paradise.
allusion + illusion An allusion is an indirect reference to something.
An illusion is a false impression.
altar + alter In the church there was a cross on the altar.
It is impossible to alter past mistakes, but at least we can learn from them.
amend + emend When you mean general changes for the better, or modifications to rules or legislation, amend is the correct choice:
(1) The boy was told to amend his behavior or face possible expulsion.
(2) The sudden outbreak of war forced the journalist to amend his article.
(3) Some people would like to amend the nation's constitution.
The use of emend is generally limited to text correction (like "edit" it begins with an e): The publisher told the author to emend his manuscript.  
annex + annexe Israeli settlers still believe they have a God-given right to annex Arab land.
In BrE, an annexe is either an extension to an existing building or a smaller building constructed later alongside (AmE annex).
antisocial + asocial
+ unsociable + unsocial
The behavior of antisocial individuals runs counter to the norms of existing society and might, for example, involve drunkenness, vandalism or assault.
An asocial person is thoroughly ill at ease with other people and may feel driven to avoid their company to such an extent that he or she becomes a recluse.
An unsociable person dislikes company and so avoids it, but he does not experience the same kind of paranoia or urge to shut himself away as the asocial person. The unsociable person simply feels he or she gets along fine without the help of others.
In BrE, anything unsocial fails to conform to the needs of society. Someone who works unsocial hours, for example, may rarely get to see his or her friends.
artist + artiste An artist is a painter or one who is skilled in any of the fine arts.
An artiste is a professional performer on stage or in the circus.
ascent + assent The first successful ascent of Everest took place in 1953.
The appointment of a new British prime minister still requires royal assent, but this is a mere formality.
assure + ensure + insure The government always assures us that it is safe to eat beef.
Each driver should ensure that all his passengers are wearing seatbelts.
You should insure valuables against loss, theft or damage.
aural + oral Aural relates to the ears. An aural exam is one in listening comprehension.
Oral relates to the mouth. It's hard to prepare for an oral English exam.
baited + bated A small mousetrap was baited with cheddar cheese.
So he looked on with bated breath when a large rat appeared.
bale (out) + bail (out) (1) There was a large bale of hay in the barn.
(2)  He needed a bucket to bale out (AmE bail out) rain water from the boat.
(1) He was charged with the offense but later released on bail.
(2) Some governments may have to bail out their national airlines.
base + bass (1) He found the sell-by date printed on the base of the container.
(2) Their mission accomplished, the special forces returned to base.
His father complained when he turned up the bass on his stereo.  
berth + birth (1) The QM2 will berth in New York on the 18th. Here is her berth.
(2) You can sleep well on board in a comfortable berth.
The crew say they can deal with anything, even the birth of a baby.
bloc + block All those countries of eastern Europe which were once part of the communist bloc have now embraced the free market.
(1) A fallen tree blocked the road.
(2) He picked up a block of wood and threw it on the fire.
(3) He lived in a block of flats (AmE apartment building).
blond + blonde He is blond. His sister also has blond hair.
She is blonde. She's a blonde.
born + borne She was born in San Francisco.
Now a local hero, he was borne shoulder-high through the street.  
bough + bow The monkey sat on the bough of a tree, laughing and waving a banana.
(1) The bow of a ship is the fore-end.
(2) The Thai gentleman gave me a bow instead of a handshake.
brake + break To stop, put your foot on the brake, but don't brake too suddenly.
(1) If you drop the glass on the floor it will break.
(2) The doctor had to break the news of the failed operation.
(3) He's been working too hard and needs a complete break.
(4) Landing that well-paid job with IBM was his lucky break.
bridal + bridle The couple had booked the bridal suite for their wedding night.
(1) The bridle is the piece of headgear used to control a horse.
(2) Mrs. Thompson bridled at her daughter's ungrateful remarks.
broach + brooch We didn't want to broach the issue of the dead man's debts at his funeral.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright always wore a large brooch carefully chosen to reflect her mood.
boy + buoy Their second child was a boy.
(1) The site of the shipwreck was marked by a buoy.
(2) It's cruel to buoy up someone's hopes if failure seems certain.
canvas + canvass To paint night scenes on canvas, he camps out in a canvas tent.
The party's candidate wasn't able to canvass enough support to win in the local election..
cast + caste (1) If you cast something you throw it purposefully and forcefully: the Romans used to cast Christians to the lions; come springtime I'll cast off these winter clothes; Matt cast the dice, praying for a double six; offshore fishermen cast their nets, while onshore anglers cast their lines.
(2) He cast a glance at his watch.
(3) The disaster cast doubt on the future of the space program.
(4) You cast your fate to the wind if you drive without a seatbelt.
(5) The wicked witch cast an evil spell on the boy and turned him into a frog.
(6) Now the election campaign is over, the electorate can finally cast its vote.
(7) Using a cast or mould (AmE mold), molten metal or plastic is cast into the desired shape.
(8) Daniel Craig was first cast as the new James Bond in Casino Royale. He was well supported by the rest of the cast (other actors).
(9) In zoology, a cast can be a mass of earth excreted by a worm or a mass of indigestible food regurgitated by a large bird.
(1) The Hindu caste system discriminates people according to their perceived purity.
(2) In more general terms, a caste has come to mean any exclusive social class.
(3) In zoology, a caste is a category of insect with a particular social function.
censor + censure China still tries to censor the news at home while taking full advantage of a free press abroad to put its own message across.
Former tennis star John McEnroe was often censured for his short temper.
childish + childlike He gets angry the moment he can't have it all his own way. He's so childish!
She has a childlike appreciation of the simpler things in life.
complement + compliment (1) Scones and jam are an excellent complement to afternoon tea.
(2) The ship left port with a full complement of officers and crew.
She complimented him on his cooking.  
contemptible + contemptuous If you strongly dislike and have no respect at all for something or someone, then you describe it or him or her as contemptible.
In the above situation, you yourself are contemptuous.
continual + continuous If something is continual it is incessant or constantly repeated.
If something is continuous it is unbroken and so truly non-stop.
cord + chord (1) The kidnappers tied his hands with a piece of cord.
(2) In anatomy we read about the spinal cord and the vocal cords.
(1) He played a chord on the piano.
(2) Her emotionally charged speech struck a chord with the audience.
(3) In geometry a chord is a straight line joining the ends of an arc.
corps + corpse The French word corps is used for a group of people working together to perform a specific task, e.g. the diplomatic corps.
A corpse is a dead body, usually human.
council + counsel A council is a formal decision-making body meeting regularly.
After being served with a summons he sought legal counsel.
councilor + counselor   A councilor (BrE councillor) is an elected member of a council.
A counselor (BrE counsellor) is an adviser, legal or otherwise.
currant + current A currant is a small dried seedless grape.
(1) A current is a flow of air, water or electricity.
(2) The adjective current means present or existing.
dairy + diary Dairy products are foods made from milk, like butter, cheese or yoghurt.
A diary is a book with a separate space for every day of the year so you can write what you have done or are planning to do each day.
dependant + dependent A dependant (AmE dependent) is a person who is supported by another.
Dependent means relying or depending on something or somebody.   
dependence + dependency Dependence is the state of relying on something or somebody else.
(1) Tahiti is a dependency of France.
(2) A dependency is a specific kind of dependence, e.g. "Too many people have developed a dependency on unnecessary medicines."
(3) In AmE, a dependency is a smaller building, such as a stable, that is an
adjunct to a larger one.
desert + dessert The Sahara is a desert in north Africa.
Chocolate mousse with whipped cream is my favorite dessert.
discrete + discreet If something is discrete it is apart from something else. For example, the brain has two discrete halves.
If someone is discreet they are tactful and generally cautious about what they say so as not to embarrass or cause any offense.  
draft + draught (1) She sent a first draft of her medical paper to the publisher.
(2) I received a banker's draft for $100.
(1) There's a cold draught (AmE draft) each time the café door opens.
(2) She took a long draught (AmE draft) of beer.
(3) She always prefers draught (AmE draft) beer to bottled beer.
(4) Flat-bottomed boats have a shallow draught (AmE draft).
(5) After dinner they played a game of draughts (AmE checkers).  
dual + duel Natalie has dual nationality: British and French.
The Wimbledon men's singles final turned out to be an exciting duel.

E-O

Confusing Words Examples of Usage, or Other Clarification
eatable + edible If food is eatable then it is palatable and probably quite tasty.
If food is edible then it is merely suitable or safe to eat.  
economic + economical (1) According to an economic survey, Spain is in recession.
(2) If prices keep falling, our business will no longer be economic.
Small cars are more economical but not as safe as larger ones.  
effective + efficient (1) Using less energy is the most effective way to reduce pollution.
(2) It is often bureaucrats who are in effective command of a country.
(3) The new law becomes effective on January 1.
It would be unnecessary for staff to put in so much overtime if their work routines were more efficient during the rest of the day.
egoist + egotist An egoist is guilty of egoism, which is another word for selfishness. An
egoist only considers himself and doesn't care about others.
An egotist is guilty of egotism, which is a preoccupation with oneself. An egotist speaks incessantly of his or her own plans and achievements.
elicit + illicit The teacher uses tag questions to elicit yes/no answers from the students.
A media magnate is reported to have had a number of illicit love affairs.
eligible + illegible Jennifer wasn't eligible to apply for the job because she didn't have all the right qualifications.
His handwriting was so bad that it was illegible.
emigrant + immigrant Many poorer emigrants from Europe never reached the shores of America.
America is home to immigrants from all over the world.
eminent + imminent The eminent scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.
When she saw the black clouds she knew a storm was imminent.
enquire + inquire Nowadays enquire and inquire are being used interchangeably.
For purists, however, a useful distinction can be made between enquire,
meaning to ask about something in general, and inquire, meaning to
investigate something in an official capacity. When conducting an academic
investigation, it seems enquire is preferred. 
ensure + insure Security is in place to ensure (AmE also "insure") the dignitaries' safety.
It is said Dolly Parton took the trouble to insure her breasts for $600,000.
epigram + epigraph
+ epitaph
An epigram is a short, witty, proverbial poem, maxim or saying.
An epigraph is the (often Latin) inscription on a statue, coin, etc.
An epitaph is a few words written in memory of someone who has died, usually on their tombstone.
esteem + estimate Former South African President Mandela was held in high esteem.
Authorities estimate the cost of reconstruction will be around $200 million.
expedient + expeditious (1) If it is expedient to do something it is advantageous, efficient and
convenient, but not necessarily morally acceptable.
(2) An expedient is a means to an end without moral considerations.
If an action is expeditious it is simply fast and efficient.  
farther + further Farther can only apply to distance, e.g. "I couldn't walk any farther".
Further is much more common and is not only used for distance but in a
more general sense. As a verb it means to promote or advance something.
(1) I could not go any further.
(2) She explained further what he had to do.
(3) The activist's prime-time TV appearance helped him further his cause.
ferment + foment (1) Food or drink ferment when sugars in them change to alcohol as the result of a chemical process.
(2) To make wine you must first ferment some grape juice.
Leaders acting against the public will can foment social tensions or unrest.
flair + flare Bill has a flair for making people laugh.
(1) As soon as we sighted the passing ship we launched a distress flare.
(2) Almost every day trouble flares up somewhere in the world.
(3) 1970s trousers were flared (became wider) at the bottom.
floe + flow There are ice floes in the Baltic all through the winter months.
Water flows through pipes.
for ever + forever Imagine if we all lived for ever.
We would forever be complaining about overcrowding.
forbear + forebear (1) The noun forbear means "ancestor".
(2) As a literary verb, to forbear means to abstain or desist from doing
something.
Forebear is an alternative spelling for the noun form only.
forgo + forego
forgone + foregone
The only meaning of forgo is to relinquish the right to something or do without it, e.g. "Since the warranty had expired, he had forgone his right to any free repairs".
(1) Forgo/forgone above can also be spelt forego/foregone.
(2) As a verb in literature, the form forego means "precede in time or place".
(3) A foregone conclusion is an easily predictable outcome.  
gamble + gambol When people gamble they bet money on the horses or in casinos.
When kids or puppies gambol they run and jump around playfully.
genus + genius A genus is a category of similar animals or plants.
Einstein was a genius for his intelligence, and Mozart for his creative talent.
gild + guild If you gild something you cover it in gold or gold-like material.
A guild is a kind of special (usually business) interest group or association.
gilt + guilt Gilt is the gold or gold-like material you use for gilding.
You have a sense of guilt if you know you have done something wrong and feel unhappy about it.
Grecian + Greek Grecian means something in the style of, or relating to, ancient Greece.
A Greek is a native of Greece. Greek is his or her nationality and language.
hangar + hanger An aircraft is kept or undergoes maintenance in a hangar.
Jackie says the wire hanger is taking over the world so she won't have any in her closet.
historic + historical A historic event is one whose significance will be remembered by future
generations. The fact that the U.S., Russia and China now stand united
against terrorism is a historic development.
Something or someone historical existed in the past. Stonehenge, for
example, is a structure of immense historical interest. Some people like
reading historical novels.
hoard + horde Shortages are always made worse by people who hoard large quantities of essential commodities in their homes.
A horde of looters soon emptied the supermarket's shelves.
human + humane It is said that most air crashes are the result of human error.
Proponents of euthanasia hold the view that it is more humane to put the terminally ill out of their misery than to prolong their suffering.
hypercritical + hypocritical If you are hypercritical of something, your criticism is rather extreme, unconstructive, and probably extravagant with hyperbole. For example, China is hypercritical of the Dalai Lama.
If you are hypocritical you are double-faced; you are not who you pretend to be and do not live up to the moral standards you set for others.
hyperthermia + hypothermia If you are experiencing hyperthermia, you have either had your body temperature artificially raised for therapeutic purposes or you are suffering from heatstroke.
If what you have is hypothermia, you are experiencing a dangerously low body temperature, probably because of prolonged exposure to cold.
idle + idol (1) Many shipyards now stand idle.
(2) Those who shirk work are idle.
(3) After retirement I don't want to idle the hours away.
An idol is a person or statue worshipped (or idolized) by people.
imperial + imperious The secretive Japanese imperial household has little relevance to the lives of ordinary citizens.
An imperious person is proud and overbearing, and expects to be obeyed.  
incredible + incredulous It's incredible that U.S. park ranger Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times and always lived to tell the tale.
I was incredulous until I read all about it in the Guinness Book of Records.
industrial +industrious In industrial cities you'll find many factories and warehouses.
Korean workers are among the most industrious in the world.
ingenious + ingenuous Some Swedish streets have an ingenious system of underground heating
elements to keep them free from ice and snow in winter.
Most children are ingenuous. They are innocent, honest and trusting.
installation + installment (1) An installation (BrE instalation) is a semi-permanent building or complex
staffed and equipped for a specific purpose, often military.
(2) The installation of something means putting it in place so it is ready for use (e.g. "after the installation of a new computer at the installation, the installation of an old program caused compatibility problems").
(3) The installation of a person means placing him or her in an official position (e.g. "the installation of a new President takes place in January").
An installment (BrE instalment) is one of a number of parts into which usually a story or payment plan has been divided in order to make it more manageable.
irrelevant + irreverent If something is irrelevant it has nothing to do with one's current situation or
the topic under discussion.
If somebody is irreverent they show less respect for someone than would normally be expected.
it's + its Some people think English is hard, while others think it's quite easy.
The dog wagged its tail.   Read more about apostrophe usage!
judicial + judicious (1) Going to court to settle a dispute is a judicial procedure.
(2) A judicial decision is an extremely careful and prudent one.
The adjective judicious means almost the same as "judicial" in example (2) above, i.e. well thought-out and based on sound judgment.
lightening + lightning (1) The artist began lightening the background of his rather gloomy painting.
(2) Dawn had come and the sky was slowly lightening in the east.
(2) He was lightening her burden by doing all the household chores.
A thunderstorm is heavy rain accompanied by thunder and lightning.
literal + literate The primary meaning of a word without metaphor or allegory is its literal
meaning. A literal translation is one which translates each word individually
rather than making sentences that sound natural in the target language. The
literal truth is the absolute truth.
To be literate means you can read and write. If you are highly literate you are
a well-educated and intelligent person.
loath/loth + loathe The adjective loath (BrE also "loth") means strongly disinclined to do
something, as in: "Her teenage son was loath to go to school."
To loathe is the corresponding verb meaning to detest, e.g. "She has a sweet tooth and simply loathes going to the dentist".
loose + lose A wheel came off the car at high speed because the bolts had come loose.
Rich people who lose their money also tend to lose so-called "friends".   
luxuriant + luxurious Despite his age, Fernando still had a full head of luxuriant black hair. It was growing so thickly and abundantly that I thought it was a wig.
He invited me to visit his luxurious mansion in Uptown Manhattan.
masterful + masterly If you are masterful, you are able to control other people or difficult situations with ease, as in: "Alice showed herself to be a masterful trial lawyer."
If you perform any task in a masterly manner, you do it with great skill.
mat + matt(e) A fat cat sat on the mat in front of the door.
Simon doesn't like glossy photos. He prefers his matt (or matte).  
meat + meet + mete Vegetarians don't eat meat.
So you are most unlikely to meet a vegetarian in a steakhouse.
If a vegetarian society ever found out one of its members was eating in a steakhouse, it would probably mete out a severe punishment.
meteor + meteorite A meteor is a lump of space rock that completely burns up on entry into the earth's atmosphere.
A meteorite is a meteor so big that part of it survives to reach the earth's surface.
miner + minor South African miners work in both gold and diamond mines.
(1) In "The Countess of Hong Kong" Chaplin played only a minor role.
(2) Jeff was under 18 (only a minor) and so not allowed to vote.
moral + morale (1) A moral is an accepted rule or standard of behavior.
(2) The moral of a story is the message it seeks to put across.
After prevailing in battle, soldiers' morale is usually high — they feel
confidend and show a positive attitude.
motif + motive A motif is either a distinctive theme in a work of art, literature or music, or a
decorative design on, for example, cloth or wallpaper.
(1) The police were unable to find any motive (reason) for the killing.
(2) Occasionally, motive is an alternative spelling for "motif" above.
naturalism + naturism (1) Naturalism is the study of animals, plants and living things.
(2) In art, naturalism is the portrayal of nature as it really is. This is in stark
contrast to idealism.
(3) In literature, naturalism is a frank and detailed depiction of life as it really is.
(4) In philosophy, naturalism means complete rejection of the spiritual or supernatural.
(1) Naturism is an appreciation of the beauty of nature.
(2) Naturism is also another name for nudism, i.e. coming closer to nature
by removing all one's clothes.
naval + navel If you meet a retired naval officer you can always say, "Long time no sea!".
It has become trendy for young 'cuties' to flaunt their navels in the summer.
neglect + negligence Neglect is a failure to take good care of something or someone, or simply a
failure to do something you are supposed to do.
Negligence is carelessness, or a failure to pay proper attention to operating
rules, warning signs, or other key information.
official + officious (1) An official is a person in a position of trust or authority.
(2) If something is official it has been sanctioned by an authority.
Sadly, some officials tend to be rather officious. In other words, they exercise their authority in a self-important, domineering manner.

P-Z

Confusing Words Examples of Usage, or Other Clarification
pail + pale A pail is an old-fashioned word for a bucket.
The adjective pale means not bright or strong in color.
palate + palette + pallet (1) The palate is the upper part of the inside of your mouth.
(2) Your palate is also your sense of taste, so if you have a discerning palate you may be extra fussy about what you eat.
(1) A palette is the round-edged board an artist uses to mix paints on.
(2) The range of colors an artist uses is also referred to as their palette.
A pallet is a standard-size portable wooden platform with holes in it for a forklift truck. Goods are handled or stockpiled on pallets in warehouses, etc.
passed + past (1) She passed the station on her way to work.
(2) The nurse passed a thermometer to the doctor.
(3) Harry passed his driver's test at the third attempt.
(4) He passed away the years in prison learning English.
(5) The government passed a new law against stalkers.
(6) The jury announced a guilty verdict and the judge passed sentence.
(7) The hospital thief had donned a white overall and passed for a doctor.
(1) It's pointless looking back on the past or worrying over past mistakes.
(2) The library is just past the post office on the left-hand side.
(3) Asian politicians in their 70s and 80s still seem to think ordinary citizens are past it (should retire) at age 65.
pastel + pastille (1) A pastel is a kind of artist's crayon.
(2) A pastel is also a picture drawn with such crayons.
(3) Pastel colors are pale and subdued.
A pastille is a small round fruit-flavored candy or medicinal lozenge.
pedal + peddle In England you are not allowed to pedal a bicycle on the sidewalk.
Many peddlers (BrE pedlars) want to peddle Chinese medicine.
personal + personnel The adjective personal usually means "private".
The collective noun personnel means "staff".
plain + plane (1) Jackie was a stunner but her sister was really quite plain.
(2) While Jackie loved fruit yoghurt, her sister preferred the plain variety.
(3) It was plain to see the cycling gold medalist had been lying.
(4) The two mountains were separated by a wide plain.
(1) I took a plane from LA to Atlanta, Georgia.
(2) The aircraft had trouble with its tail plane.
(3) I used a plane and then some sandpaper to smooth a piece of wood.
(4) Humans are supposed to be on a higher plane than the apes.
populace + population Ordinary common folk living in a given place are referred to as the populace.
The total number of people (or animals) living in a country, city or other area is referred to as a population.
popular + populous (1) Cricket is exceedingly popular (liked) in India.
(2) Reincarnation is a popular (common) belief in India.
Both Beijing and Cairo are populous (densely inhabited) cities.
practical + practicable (1) He went to Libya to get some practical experience of camels.
(2) She was a very practical woman; she always knew just what to do.
(3) A safari suit is the most practical thing to wear on a safari.
A Dutch company now says a one-way trip to Mars is practicable (feasible).
pray + prey On New Year's Day most Japanese go to a temple or shrine to pray.
Zebras are a lion's prey. Even domestic cats prey on small birds.
principal + principle (1) The principal of a U.S. school is called a headmaster in the UK.
(2) Amsterdam is not the capital but the principal city of the Netherlands.
A principle is a basic rule or norm. A fundamental principle of our criminal justice system is that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
prise + prize You might be able to prise (AmE prize, pry) open a simple lock with a screwdriver.
A prize is something awarded to the winner of a competition. The farmer was proud of his prize bull.
prophecy + prophesy A prophecy is a statement that something will happen in the future.
The corresponding verb is to prophesy something.
prudent + prudish It is prudent to look twice each way before crossing a road.
If you are prudish you are easily shocked by anything of a sexual nature.
punctual + punctilious Teresa was always very punctual, never late for her Spanish classes.
His punctilious manner was getting on her nerves. He was always so formal and correct. If only he would let down his hair for once!
rain + reign + rein Bergen in Norway is a very wet city with over 2,000 mm of rain a year.
Queen Elizabeth II began her reign in 1953.
Reins are straps for guiding horses or (esp. in Britain) restraining young children near busy roads.
raise + raze (1) If you raise something you increase it or lift it up.
(2) A raise (BrE rise) is a salary increase.
If you raze (BrE also "rase") something you destroy it completely.
respectable + respectful (1) A respectable person or thing has won social approval.
(2) A respectable sum of money is an adequate or acceptable amount.
If you are respectful of someone then your words and manner reflect your good opinion of their ideas or character.  
respectfully + respectively The children stood up respectfully when the teacher entered the room.
The three largest cities in Sweden are Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö respectively.  
review + revue (1) The New York Times gave the new Broadway musical a positive review.
(2) It seems unlikely the U.S. will review its policy toward Cuba.
(3) The students did some review (BrE revision) for the exam.
A revue is light entertainment on-stage with music, dance and jokes.
rhyme + rime (1) Snug, bug and rug rhyme.
(2) A short poem with rhyming words at the end of each line is also called a rhyme.
(3) People who commit atrocities do so without rhyme or reason.
(1) Rime is hoar frost.
(2) In archaic English, rime is a spelling variant of "rhyme" above.
rôle/role + roll Sean Connery played the leading rôle of James Bond in "Dr. No".
(1) He released the handbrake and let the car roll down the hill.
(2) Sandra bought another roll of wallpaper.
(3) In Paris I ate a cheese and ham roll for breakfast.
(4) When I joined the club I had my name added to the membership roll.
(5) Each morning on the tropical island I awoke to the roll of drums.
rout + route The Iraqis' 1991 disorganized retreat from Kuwait was called a rout.
A route is the course or path taken from one place to another.
satisfactory + satisfying If something is satisfactory it is adequate or good enough.
If something is satisfying it lives entirely up to and possibly surpasses your
expectations.
scald + scold 1) A scald is the injury caused when skin comes into contact with boiling hot liquid or steam.
(2) Every day countless young children scald themselves badly because
careless parents heat saucepans on the stove with handles sticking out into
the room and invitingly easy to grab hold of.
(3) Scald babies' bottles to sterilize them.
(4) If you scald a liquid (e.g. milk), you heat it until almost boiling.
If you scold someone you tell them off for doing something you disapprove of.  
sceptic + septic A sceptic (AmE skeptic) is a person who doesn't believe or remains unconvinced by what he or she is told.
If a wound becomes septic it is contaminated with harmful bacteria.
sensible + sensitive A sensible person makes sound judgments and the right decisions.
(1) He was sensitive enough not to mention the fly in the soup to his mother.
(2) His mother was always very sensitive about criticism of her cooking.
(3) Sensitive instruments can detect the slightest seismic movements and help us to predict earthquakes.  
sense + sensibility
+ sensitivity
(1) Sense [U] means prudence, rationality or reasonableness.
(2) If you sense something you become aware of it.
(3) The five senses [C] are hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste.
(4) Some people have a great sense of beauty but little sense of ugliness.
(1) Sensibility is an openness and responsiveness to emotions.
(2) Out of sensibility to the local religion, no pork was served.
Sensitivity is the noun form of the adjective "sensitive" exemplified above.
sensual + sensuous Anything that gratifies the senses, especially if it arouses physical or sexual pleasure, can be referred to as sensual.
With sensuous the emphasis is on the appreciation of beauty. Beautiful women, art and music can all be sensuous.
sociable + social If you are sociable you enjoy meeting people and making new friends.
(1) A jury is made up of people from different social backgrounds.
(2) Many people do volunteer work to expand their social contacts.
steak + stake I bought a steak in a restaurant. I'm no vegetarian!
I bought a stake in a restaurant. They made me part-owner and I replaced the old sign nailed to a stake in the ground outside.
stationary + stationery Parked cars are stationary or standing still.
Envelopes and writing paper for letters are stationery items.  
stile + style A stile is a step on either side of a fence surrounding a field to enable people but not animals to climb over.
(1) The style of an activity is the manner in which it is done.
(2) The style of a product is its design.
(2) A person's style is his general behavior.
(3) If you have style then you are charming, smart and elegant.
storey + story A storey (AmE story) is a horizontal division in a building.
A story is a tale or account of real or imaginary events.
straight + strait (1) If something is straight it continues in the same direction without the slightest deviation.
(2) If you go straight to a place you choose the most direct path.
(3) A straight movie is serious one without comedy.
(4) A straight person is honest and gives straight answers to straight questions instead of evasive ones.
(5) If you like your liquor straight you drink it neat or undiluted.
(6) In colloquial language, straight means heterosexual and not gay.
A strait is a narrow seaway between two land masses that links two large areas of water.
sty + stye Pigs live in a sty or pigsty (AmE pigpen).
A stye (AmE sty; BrE alternative spelling also sty) is an inflamed swelling at the base of an eyelid.
substantial + substantive (1) [LARGE IN SIZE OR VALUE] A substantial amount of work needs to be
done on an old house, which is likely to cost a substantial sumt of money. 
(2) [GENERAL OR ESSENTIAL] That two wrongs don't make a right is a
substantial truth. On that point we are in substantial agreement.
1) [OF SUBSTANCE OR SIGNIFICANCE] The police remained tight-lipped, so their press briefing failed to reveal anything substantive (i.e. nothing new came to light).
(2) [OF PRACTICAL USE OR IMPORTANCE] After completing the on-site inspection, members of the housing committee felt like a substantive meal (i.e. one that was both adequate in size and nourishing). They then held a meeting and reached a substantive agreement to give the go ahead for construction of 500 new homes.
suit + suite (1) A regular suit is a jacket with matching pants/trousers or skirt. Other kinds of suit for specific purposes include space suits and bathing suits.
(2) If clothes suit you, they look good on you.
(3) If an arrangement suits you, it is convenient for you.
(4) In a court of law, a suit (or lawsuit) is legal action taken by one individual or entity against another individual or entity.
(5) Playing cards have four suits: hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds.
(6) If you follow suit you copy someone else's actions.
(1) A suite is a set of adjoining luxury rooms in a hotel.
(2) A suite is a set of matching furniture.
(3) In the world of music, a suite is either a set of original musical compositions designed to be played in quick succession, or an arrangement of items from an existing composition that gets treated as a separate work.
swat + swot It's always easiest to hit a fly with a fly swat.
Serious students swot (AmE cram) hard for their exams.  
systematic + systemic An action or process executed methodically, or according to some kind of system or plan (with or without official blessing!), is systematic. So, for example, in recent decades we have witnessed the systematic destruction of tropical rain forests.
If a problem is systemic it affects the whole of something and not just part of it. Russia is still having to deal with systemic corruption in many industries.
testimony + testimonial The fact that one of the neighbors in a sworn testimony stated that Mrs.
Smith had long been receiving visitors through the back door is testimony to
the fact that her activities are sometimes regarded with suspicion.
Especially lesser-known online businesses will solicit a testimonial from any satisfied customer and use it to win over sceptics.
tire + tyre (1) If tasks demand a lot of energy, they eventually tire you.
(2) Some kids never tire of playing.
A tyre (AmE tire) is a ring of (usually inflated) rubber placed around the rim of a wheel to soften contact with the road.
troop + troupe (1) A troop is a cavalry unit under the command of a captain.
(2) Troops are a large contingent of soldiers forming a fighting force.
(3) A troop of animals or people is a group of them.
A troupe is a group of actors, singers, dancers or acrobats who perform together.
wave + waive (1) North Koreans are not allowed to wave back to people across the border in China. Plain clothes guards keep them under constant surveillance..
(2) After an offshore earthquake there is the possibility of a tidal wave.
(3) Another wave of violence has struck the West Bank.
(1) The French authorities traditionally waive parking fines when a new president takes office. Nobody has to pay them.
(2) If you waive your right to something, you opt to do without it.
 whose + who's "Whose racquet is that?"
"It's Melissa's."
"Who's Melissa?"
"She's my doubles partner!"
your + you're "Ms. Harrison, your husband won $10,000 in the annual lottery, but I'm afraid he forgot to claim it in time."
"You're joking!"