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Scholarly Voice: Commonly Confused Words for Capstone Writers

Commonly Confused Words for Capstone Writers

A key element of scholarly voice is a writer’s diction, or appropriate word choice. Diction is important because, as noted in the APA manual, academic writing should be as precise and clear as possible. A number of factors can contribute to incorrect word choice: misunderstood distinctions in meaning, similarities in spelling or pronunciation, and even typographical errors. The purpose of the following list is to help capstone writers see the distinctions between commonly confused words so that they can choose the word that is not only correct in terms of meaning, grammar, and spelling but also the clearest and most effective for a given situation.



a and an

Use the article a before a word that starts with a consonant (a study) or consonant sound (a U.S. subsidiary). Use an before a word that begins with a vowel (an increase), vowel sound (an SUD), or silent h (an hour).

accept and except

Accept generally means to approve, agree, or receive willingly, whereas except suggests exclusion.

Example: All of the participants except P5 and P6 stated that they would not accept such behaviors in the workplace.

advice and advise

Advice (noun) is a recommendation, and to advise (verb) is to offer a recommendation.

Example: If parents follow this advice, they may help their children develop healthier eating habits.
Example: Public health workers could use these findings as they advise parents in outreach programs.

affect and effect

In most cases, the desired verb form is affect, meaning to have an influence, whereas the noun effect refers to the influence itself.

Example: Jones (2016) suggested that such practices might affect compliance; however, Smith (2018) contended that any effect would be minimal.

Less commonly, the word affect serves as a psychology-related noun (with stress on the first syllable), and effect can be a verb meaning to cause, most often in the expression to effect change.

allude and elude

To allude is to make an indirect reference to something else; to elude essentially means to avoid or escape.

Example: One of the managers alluded to the need to seek employee input on such policies.
Example: Through this training, participants learned skills that had previously eluded them.

although and while

The use of while is more restricted in APA style than it is in common usage. Per APA, for greater clarity, use while to indicate something happening at the same time as something else, not to indicate contrast. Some options for expressing contrast include although, whereas, but, however, and even though.

Example: Although 94 participants submitted surveys, only 12 of those surveys were incomplete.
Example: While participants spoke, I took notes in my own words.

among and between

The preposition among indicates a connection or relationship within a group or involving indistinct members of the same category. The preposition between is the appropriate choice when referring to one-to-one relationships, especially when they involve distinct, individually identified nouns.

Example: The question yielded a similar reaction among the male participants.
Example: Researchers found a positive correlation between number of hours slept and level of job satisfaction.

any body, anybody, any one, and anyone

The phrases any body and any one consist of the adjective any followed by a noun (i.e., body and one). The words anybody and anyone are indefinite pronouns.

Example: Researchers asked participants to identify any body of water used by their community as a water supply.
Example: One participant stated, “I don’t think anybody in management is listening to our concerns. I don’t think they care.”

aspect and respect

In academic writing, the noun aspect most often refers to a quality, nature, or characteristic of something.

Example: The social aspect of the mentoring program was beneficial.

The noun respect can have a closely related meaning, in that it can refer to a particular detail of something. In contrast to aspect, when respect is used to convey this meaning, it tends to occur in a prepositional phrase in this respect. This phrasing is idiomatic; aspect sounds much less natural in the same phrase. Consider the following examples:

Idiomatic: P1 and P2 attended college for just one semester; their educational histories were similar in this respect.
Awkward: Their educational histories were similar in this aspect.

assume and presume

Assume and presume both refer to treating an idea as probably true without having the evidence needed to be absolutely certain. A person might assume something based on contextual expectations rather than evidence, whereas to presume usually denotes a greater degree of confidence, perhaps based on some evidence.

In capstone writing, the word assume appears more frequently than presume because researchers need to discuss assumptions (i.e., aspects of their study believed to be probably true).

Example: I assumed that participants were honest and forthcoming in their responses.
Example: Other explanations can only be presumed from the data; they are not explicit.

assure, ensure, and insure

The word assure essentially means to confirm with or promise someone that something is true. There is some overlap in meaning between ensure and insure. In general, though, ensure means to make sure that something is accomplished (by taking some kind of action), and insure usually refers to purchasing some kind of protection from sudden financial loss.

Example: I assured participants that their responses would be confidential.
Example: I assigned participants the codes P1, P2, and so on to help ensure confidentiality.
Example: Researchers have found that patients who are insured have better treatment outcomes than those who are underinsured or uninsured.

attribute and contribute

To attribute means to explain something by noting its cause. To contribute is to give something to help people or causes.

Example: Researchers attributed the failure of the project to an inadequate budget and insufficient staffing.
Example: This study may contribute to positive social change if health care leaders use the findings to enhance treatment outcomes.

because and since

Usage guidelines for since are somewhat stricter in APA style than in everyday English. In common usage, since may refer to either a temporal (time) relationship or a cause/effect relationship. Per APA, however, to avoid potential ambiguity, use since to indicate a temporal relationship only. To indicate causation, use because instead of since.

Example: The 2010 U.S. Census data showed that the number of Virginia residents of Hispanic origin had increased by 92% since 2000 (University of Virginia, 2011).
Example: Because the scope of this study did not involve describing a participant’s viewpoint of a culture, an ethnographic design was not appropriate.

casual and causal

The similar spelling of these two words sometimes leads to errors, but their meanings are unrelated. Casual means informal or unplanned. Causal refers to the cause of something.

Example: A number of researchers have studied possible effects of casual dress policies on productivity.
Example: Researchers have not yet proven a causal relationship between these factors.

cite, sight, and site

To cite means to provide a citation for a source of information or to mention something as an example or reason. Sight refers to the visual sense or what you can see. A site is a location, as in a study site or website.

Example: McNamara and Zhou (2017) cited several factors that could contribute to these lower scores.
Example: Galvani et al. (2016) found three main relationships between sight loss and substance use.
Example: The site for this qualitative study on bullying behaviors was a suburban middle school.

complement and compliment; complementary and complimentary

Complement and complementary are related to the idea of completion (note the similarity in spelling). Compliment and complimentary generally refer to an act of praise, but complimentary also describes something given for free as a courtesy.

Example: The purpose of the shadowing was to complement the training modules for new hires.
Example: The findings revealed a complementary relationship between experiential learning and classroom learning.
Example: One participant mentioned complimenting employees on their work as a way to increase their confidence and engagement.
Example: The researchers offered participants a complimentary treatment plan.

conscience and conscious

Conscience (noun) refers to a person’s sense of what is morally right or wrong; conscious (usually an adjective) refers to being mentally aware of one’s surroundings, actions, feelings, and so on.

Example: The researchers concluded that combat veterans are likely to have trouble adjusting to civilian life after repeated exposure to violations to their conscience.
Example: Behavioral intent, according to Venkatesh, is a person’s conscious decision to do or implement something in his or her future behavior.

consequently and subsequently

Consequently suggests causation and is a synonym for therefore, whereas subsequently refers to something that happens after (but not necessarily because of) a previously mentioned action.

Example: These findings could provide leaders with techniques to increase their employees’ commitment to the organization and, consequently, reduce the rate of voluntary employee turnover.
Example: Data collected during this study will be stored securely in a locked cabinet in my home office for 5 years and subsequently destroyed.

council and counsel

The noun council refers to an advisory group or administrative body of some kind (e.g., the city council), whereas the noun counsel means advice (e.g., his friend provided good counsel about the problem). Counsel is also a verb meaning to advise, from which the noun counseling is derived.

Example: Participant 3 also served as the student council advisor at her school.
Example: The second group received counseling for the family in addition to the patient’s usual treatment.

credible and creditable

Credible means believable, trustworthy, or convincing. The noun form credibility frequently appears in academic writing, where it refers to the trustworthiness or believability (e.g., the credibility of the findings).

Example: Demonstrating rigor in the collection and analysis of data helps researchers show that they are credible.
Example: Using these strategies increased the credibility of this study and the transferability of the findings.

Creditable and the related noun creditability are derived from the word credit and are not common in capstone writing. Creditable means deserving praise or acknowledgment (e.g., his attempt was creditable, in that it showed determination).

elicit and illicit

Elicit is a verb meaning to draw out (usually a reaction or a response) from someone. The adjective illicit is used to describe something that is illegal.

Example: I designed these questions to elicit responses focused on faculty and staff awareness of classroom accommodations.
Example: Researchers mentioned alcohol use, illicit drug use, poor diet, smoking, mental illness, and psychosocial stress as key risk factors.

explicit and implicit

Explicit suggests that something is shown or explained clearly and directly; implicit means that something is implied or can be understood through indirect means.

Example: In that framework, the concept of empathy is not explicitly named as an aspect of communication but is implied.
Example: These findings suggested that implicit biases may be influencing how health professionals’ respond to the needs of this population.

farther and further

The distinctions in usage between farther and further have fluctuated over time. As adjectives, farther has become the preferred choice for distance, and further generally refers to something that is additional. As adverbs, both words can refer to distance (real or figurative—though some people object to the figurative use of farther), but when the idea of distance is not involved, only further is used. In general, a writer should be safe using farther when referring to distance and further if the intended meaning is similar to more, additional, or additionally.

Example: Because of deforestation, people in this region—mostly women and girls—have to walk farther than they did in the past to collect the fire wood needed for cooking.
Example: I encouraged participants to contact me if they had further questions about the study.
Example: Further, not all students who used these technologies demonstrated improvements in language proficiency.

fewer and less

The general rule (though disputed by some experts) is that fewer should be used for nouns that can be counted (count nouns) and less should be for nouns that cannot be counted (noncount nouns). Less also serves as an adverb.

Example: Because the firm has fewer than 20 employees, I invited all interested employees to participate in the study.
Example: This combination of medication and psychotherapy led to fewer treatment failures and better overall functioning.
Example: Participants described health concerns that compelled them to select foods with less sugar, salt, and fat.
Example: Compared with their male counterparts, female caregivers took on more direct care hours and were less likely to seek help in caregiving tasks.

if and whether

If and whether are sometimes interchangeable. In many cases, either word can be used when indirectly reporting a question. In such sentences, if is often used in the case of a yes/no question (e.g., She asked if I had submitted my proposal.), and whether serves better when there is a choice involved (e.g., She asked whether I would apply for graduation this term or next term.).

That said, in academic writing, there is a preference for whether over if after many reporting verbs, for example, determine, assess, know, and decide.

Example: Educational programs require ongoing evaluation to determine whether they are yielding desired outcomes.

In some cases, the two words have completely separate functions. When referring to something that is conditional, only if will work, not whether.

Example: If a clear connection is discovered, determining the nature of this connection can help justify enhanced treatment for combat veterans.

Note, too, that whether can follow a preposition, but if cannot.

Example: The severity of punishment can vary depending on whether the offender caused statutory harm.

Also, whether, but not if, can be followed by an infinitive (i.e., the base form of a verb with to before it).

Example: I reassured participants that they could decide at any point whether to continue participating in the study.

imply and infer

Imply means to hint at or suggest something without explicitly stating it. Infer means to come to some conclusion based on facts or evidence.

Example: In a qualitative study, transferability does not imply that duplicating the study process will yield the same results.
Example: From those findings, practitioners were able to infer which patients will benefit the most from such intervention.

incidence and incidents

Although these two words sound alike, incidence refers to the rate or frequency of something occurring, whereas incidents is the plural form of incident, meaning an individual event or occurrence.

Example: The incidence of lung cancer is expected to increase worldwide over the next decade (American Cancer Society, 2014).
Example: Leaders in that firm have embraced self-reporting of incidents as a way to improve compliance with safety regulations.

it’s and its

The word its is the possessive form of it, whereas it’s is a contraction of it is or it has. In APA style, writers should avoid contractions (though they may still appear in direct quotations, as in the example below).

Example: In this section, I describe the primary analysis for each research question and its corresponding hypotheses.
Example: Participant 3 agreed, stating that “it’s not what you say but what you do that counts the most.”

manager and manger

A common misspelling that may not be caught by the spell check function in Word or other word processing software is the word manger (which is a trough for animals to eat from) where the word manager was intended. Writers can effectively find and correct any instance of this error by searching the document for the word manger and replacing it with manager as needed.

marital and martial

Marital is an adjective related to the words marry and marriage (e.g., marital status). Writers sometimes mistakenly type the word martial, an adjective related to war or military (e.g., martial law or martial arts), instead of marital. This misspelling might not be detected by the spell checker in Word or other word processing programs.

may be and maybe

May be is a verb phrase consisting of the modal verb may and main verb be, similar to might be or could be. The adverb maybe, a synonym for perhaps, appears to be more common in conversation or informal writing than in capstone writing.

Example: Some teachers may be anxious about their ability to apply the tools introduced in the training sessions.
Example: Participant 8 stated that he chose mostly healthy foods, noting, “I try not to buy junk food except maybe once a month or so.”

nor and or

The conjunction nor is used to introduce the second and/or final element in a series of negated items, whereas the word or simply introduces an alternative. As correlative conjunctions (i.e., conjunctions used in pairs), neither goes with nor and either goes with or.

Example: None of the participants were previously known by me, nor did any of them work on the same campus as me.
Example: Neither the instructor nor the student participants indicated any changes to make in the interview transcript.
Example: I excluded 15 participants because their age was either above or below the age range for the study.

peak, peek, and pique

These three words sound alike but have completely different meanings. Peak can be a noun, meaning the top or maximum, or a verb, meaning to reach the top or maximum. Peek simply means to sneak a look at something. Pique, which comes from a French word meaning to prick or sting, has a few meanings in modern English, but it most often means to excite or stimulate and is followed by nouns like interest or curiosity.

Example: Even when oil production was at its peak, corruption in the government prevented sustainable economic growth.
Example: The infection rate tends to peak in the first and second quarters of the year.
Example: One teacher stated, “I try to keep my phone out of sight during the school day, but I sometimes find myself peeking at it when students are busy with a test or something.”
Example: Such mentorship programs have piqued the interest of researchers and policy makers.

perquisite and prerequisite

Writers sometimes mistakenly type perquisite, which is a special right or privilege, where they intended to type prerequisite, which refers to a condition or step that is required before something else may occur.

It may be helpful to note that the first part of the word perquisite is the source of the less formal noun perk (with the same meaning), whereas the word prerequisite, which can be a noun or an adjective, is composed of the prefix pre- (before) and the word requisite (required).

Example: Large enterprises are usually more able than small businesses to offer a competitive salary and an attractive array of perquisites.
Example: However, researchers disagree on whether total quality management is a prerequisite for innovation.

precede and proceed

Precede means to come before something else; proceed means to continue or go forward, usually with some type of process.

Example: Further analysis showed that enrollment in the program did not always precede a higher test score.
Example: Participants could not proceed to the survey until they had completed the demographic information and informed consent form.

principal and principle

As a noun, principal most commonly refers to the head of a school or to a sum of money that has been lent or borrowed (as opposed to the interest that accrues on that sum). As an adjective, this word refers to something that is of greatest important, such as a principal component or principal ingredient.

Principle, however, can only function as a noun and refers to something (e.g., a rule for conduct, a law, belief, or assumption) that is fundamental.

Example: Principals are responsible for knowing academic standards and content for each grade.
Example: Quality assurance and performance improvements are the two principal components of QAPI.
Example: As outlined in the Belmont Report, the three basic ethical principles for research involving human participants are (a) respect for persons, (b) beneficence, and (c) justice.

pubic and public

As part of the proofreading process, writers using the word public in their writing may want to search their document (using Ctrl+F) to see if they have misspelled public as pubic at any point. The difference in meaning is obvious enough, but the spell checker might not catch this typographical error.

systematic and systemic

Systematic refers to something that is done methodically, that is, by means of some kind of system (e.g., systematic efforts or a systematic approach), whereas systemic refers to a characteristic of or process in a given system (e.g., systemic violence or systemic circulation).

Example: Researchers can validate a study’s results by following the described procedures in a systematic manner.
Example: Healthcare leaders need more effective strategies for identifying systemic problems so they can improve organizational operations.

tenant and tenet

The word tenet refers to a principle of a theory, philosophy, or paradigm. Writers sometimes misspell tenet as tenant, a word denoting a person who occupies a property rented from someone else.

Example: The principal tenet of contingency theory is that project success depends on a variety of factors.
Example: Participant 3 was a 56-year-old woman who managed an apartment building with eight tenants.

than and then

The word than is for comparisons, whereas then is mostly used as an adverb to indicate something that directly follows something else in time, position, sequence, or logic.

Example: Interviewees were all college or university graduates who have been unemployed for more than 2 years.
Example: I then created an interview schedule from the dates and times participants requested.
Example: If such entrepreneurship training is embedded in the high school curriculum, then more young people will acquire entrepreneurship skills.

that and which

The distinction between that and which, when they function as relative pronouns, is more clearly defined in APA style than in general usage. Although both words can be used in a restrictive relative clause in everyday English, to avoid potential ambiguity, writers following APA guidelines should use the relative pronoun which only in nonrestrictive relative clauses, not in restrictive ones.

One characteristic of a nonrestrictive clause is that a comma precedes it, whereas no comma precedes a restrictive clause. Therefore, if a sentence has the word which without a comma before it, and the clause following which is a relative clause (i.e., a clause that describes a noun that precedes it, also known as an adjective clause), the writer should determine whether to (a) add a comma to make the clause nonrestrictive or (b) change which to that to keep the clause restrictive. Which option to choose will depend on the writer’s intended meaning. See our page on the differences in meaning between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses for more explanation.

Example: Leaders must implement human resource management strategies that support the organization’s plan for competitive advantage.
Example: Another limitation was the size of the focus group, which consisted of six participants.

that and who/whom

Although the relative pronoun that is commonly used in everyday English to introduce a relative clause referring to a person or people, in APA style—as in some other formal writing styles, writers should use only who or whom in relative clauses referring to people, reserving that for relative clauses describing nonhumans (e.g., inanimate objects, organizations, concepts, etc.). Note that who functions as the subject of a verb, whereas whom functions as the object of a verb or of a preposition.

Example: In snowball sampling, a researcher asks individuals who meet the criteria for participation to propose additional potential participants for the purpose of enlarging the sample.
Example: The participants whom I interviewed in person included the registrar at the college and two business leaders in the neighboring community.
Example: Barling et al. (1988) described social support as an important motivational tool that increases coping mechanisms and supportive behaviors.

For greater economy of expression, writers should also consider whether a relative pronoun can be omitted or the relative clause can be reduced.

their, there, and they’re

Although the spell checker in Microsoft Word will typically catch errors with these three homophones, writers should proofread carefully to be sure they have used the correct spelling. Their is a possessive adjective. There generally refers to location (either concrete or abstract) or indicates the existence of something. They’re is a contraction and, as such, should be avoided in APA style; instead, writers should use the phrase they are.

Example: The focus of the questions was on how employees experience safety challenges in their daily work.
Example: There were considerably more female participants than male.
Example: Participants are more willing to share their experiences if they are comfortable with the researcher and the research setting.

Note that APA and Walden have specific recommendations on the use of the pronoun they to refer to singular nouns.

use and utilize

Writers sometimes choose the word utilize because they erroneously believe it to be a more formal-sounding synonym for use. However, doing so can result in not only an artificially inflated style but also an unwanted implication. The word utilize has a slightly different connotation than the more common word use. Writers should opt for the simple, direct word use unless they wish specifically to convey that something is being used in an unexpected or novel way.

Example: I used snowball sampling to obtain the number of participants needed for this study.
Example: Teachers could utilize strategies typically used for speaking, listening, and writing to support students’ reading skills.

who’s and whose

Writers sometimes mistakenly use the word who’s when they should use whose, which is the possessive form of who. The word who’s is a contraction for the phrases who is or who has. In APA style, writers should avoid using contractions.

Example: I selected three communities whose residents have generally low socioeconomic status.