Common misspellings and word confusion

When words sound similar or the same, people can confuse their spelling. If you’re not sure about the spelling of a word, check a dictionary.

Check for words that are easily confused or misspelt

The spelling of some words is variable. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which spelling or word to use because:

  • Australian, American and British English have different ways of spelling a word
  • a word might sound similar to another, so people can mishear it and write the wrong word.

Follow one dictionary for consistency and use it to check variable spellings.

Choose the right word and spell it correctly

Correct word use makes content readable and clear to users. Getting words wrong risks losing users’ engagement with, and trust of, your content.

This alphabetical list contains some of the words that people get wrong in government writing. Check your dictionary for the full set of meanings of each word.

accept/except

The verb ‘to accept’ means ‘to agree’ or ‘to receive’.

The verb ‘to except’ means ‘to exclude’.

Example

She will accept their apology for the delay and agree to a later deadline.

I can meet most days, except Tuesday morning.

affect/effect

The word ‘affect’ means ‘to produce an effect on’.

The word ‘effect’ means ‘the result of an action’ or, as a verb, ‘to bring about or make something happen’.

Example

The Cancer Council looks at the ways cancer affects Australians and how to support them.

One effect of the ‘Quit smoking’ campaign was the overall decline of the number of smokers by 12%.

The manager wanted to effect change in the team.

allusion/illusion

The word ‘allusion’ means ‘a reference’. It is often followed by 'to’.

The word ‘illusion’ means ‘a mistaken belief’.

Example

In his speech, the minister made an allusion to a policy the department is developing.

At a glance, it seemed the colour was black rather than grey, but that was just an illusion.

ascent/assent

The word ‘ascent’ means ‘upward movement’.

The word ‘assent’ means ‘to agree’. It is often followed by ‘to’.

Example

Bill told us about his ascent to the top of Mount Kosciuszko on horseback a few years ago.

There is no guarantee the manager will assent to postpone delivery.

complement/compliment

The noun ‘complement’ means ‘something that completes something else’ or, as a verb, ‘to complete something’.

The noun ‘compliment’ means ‘an expression of praise’ or, as a verb, ‘to praise’.

Example

I enjoy working with my team members. Our skills complement one another perfectly.

It is important to compliment the team when they meet a deadline.

council/counsel

The word ‘council’ means ‘a formal advisory body of people’.

The word ‘counsel’ means ‘advice’ and ‘to advise’. It also refers to a barrister or other ‘legal adviser’.

Example

At the recent meeting, the council voted in favour of raising rates by 5%.

If I had followed their counsel I would have achieved a better outcome.

Our legal counsel advised seeking an out-of-court settlement.

conscience/conscious

The word ‘conscience’ means ‘a moral sense of right and wrong’.

The word ‘conscious’ means ‘awake and aware of one’s surroundings and identity’.

Example

His conscience stopped him from accepting their hospitality.

They were conscious of the time and soon returned to their desks.

dependant/dependent

A ‘dependant’ is a person who relies on another, especially for financial support.

The word ‘dependent’ is usually followed by ‘on’, and means ‘conditional’ or ‘subordinate’.

Example

Please fill out this request for subsidy on behalf of your dependant.

The expansion of the program is dependent on funding.

discreet/discrete

The word ‘discreet’ means ‘careful’ or ‘prudent’.

The word ‘discrete’ means ‘distinct’.

Example

She trusted him with the information because he was always discreet.

The requirements of the different projects meant the branch recruited managers with discrete skill sets.

disinterested/uninterested

The word ‘disinterested’ means ‘impartial’ and ‘unbiased by personal interest’.

The word ‘uninterested’ means ‘not interested’, ‘indifferent’ or ‘unconcerned’.

‘Disinterested’ is often used to mean ‘uninterested’, but this use is not correct.

Example

The judge’s deliberation was disinterested and considered.

The invitation to the concert was wasted on me because I’m uninterested in jazz music.

dived/dove

The verb ‘to dive’ means ‘to descend’ or ‘to plunge into or under’.

In Australian English, write ‘dived’ to use the past tense of the verb ‘to dive’.

The word ‘dove’ is the past tense of ‘dive’ in American English.

Example

Bystanders dived into the creek to help the drowning swimmer.

drank/drunk

The verb ‘drank’ is the past tense of ‘to drink’.

The verb ‘drunk’ is a participle and is used with ‘has’, ‘have’ or ‘had’.

The adjective ‘drunk’ means ‘intoxicated by alcohol’.

Example

Yesterday, the graduates drank the soft drinks from the staff fridge.

I arrived after they had drunk all the coffee.

The police released a campaign warning people not to drive while they are drunk.

elicit/illicit

The word ‘elicit’ is a verb meaning ‘to draw out’, ‘to cause’ or ‘to evoke’.

The word ‘illicit’ is an adjective meaning unlawful.

Example

The questions in the survey were designed to elicit helpful responses.

Alcohol was once considered an illicit substance.

immanent/imminent

The word ‘immanent’ means ‘part of something’s intrinsic nature’ or ‘remaining or operating within’.

The word ‘imminent’ means ‘impending’ or ‘about to happen’.

Example

The search for meaning is immanent in human nature.

Emergency Services advised residents that evacuation was imminent.

for all intents and purposes/for all intensive purposes

The correct expression is ‘for all intents and purposes’, meaning ‘in every practical sense’.

Example

The paperwork may take a few weeks to come through but, for all intents and purposes, you are hired.

foreword/forward

The noun ‘foreword’ means ‘the introductory comments at the beginning of a book’.

The word ‘forward’ is usually an adjective or adverb. It means ‘in advance (of time)’, ‘ahead’ or ‘onward’.

Example

The report is almost ready. All I need to do is write the foreword.

The publication date was brought forward. The report will now be released in June, and not October as initially stated.

judgement/judgment

Write ‘judgement’ rather than ‘judgment’.

The exception is a court decision; write this as ‘judgment’.

Example

You can speak to one of our counsellors without fearing judgement.

Please cite the High Court’s most recent judgment in the issues paper.

lead/led

The word ‘lead’ is a noun meaning ‘leadership’ or ‘principal’; a verb meaning ‘to go before’, ‘to conduct’; or an adjective meaning ‘in front’. ‘Led’ is the past tense of ‘lead’.

‘Lead’ (not led) means a base metal and is pronounced as ‘led’.

Example

They followed my lead.

She was the lead negotiator.

He took the lead in the race.

The deputy secretary led the discussion.

The chemical symbol for lead is ‘Pb‘.

licence/license

The word ‘licence’ is a noun. It means ‘a document from an authority giving formal permission’.

The word ‘license’ is a verb. It means ‘to obtain or grant a licence’.

Example

The state and territory websites have information about getting and renewing your drivers licence.

Visit our website if you would like to license your pet.

lose/loose

The verb ‘to lose’ means ‘be deprived of’ or ‘cease to have’.

The word ‘loose’ is usually an adjective, but is also a noun, adverb or verb. Two of the meanings as an adjective are ‘not held by bonds or restraint’ and ‘not held together’.

Example

If we don’t meet the deadline, we may lose the bonus payment.

Some of the screws on his desk were loose so he worried about workplace health and safety.

master degree/masters degree/master’s degree

A common confusion is how to write about master level degrees. Common spellings include ‘master’, ‘master’s’ and ‘masters’.

Use ‘master degree’. When referring to a specific qualification, use ‘Master of [area of study]’.

Example

He completed his master degree last year.

Having a Master of Arts helped her gain the promotion.

The university offered several masters degrees to postgraduate students.

passed/past

The word ‘passed’ means ‘moved onwards’, ‘overtook’ or ‘handed over’.

The word ‘past’ can be a noun meaning ‘previous time’, an adjective meaning ‘gone by in time’ or an adverb meaning ‘beyond’.

Example

While driving yesterday, I passed the department’s new offices.

In the past, staff would have to book a room to have a meeting. We have moved past that; now we meet online.

practice/practise

The word ‘practice’ is a noun. It means ‘a repeated activity’ or ‘a habit’. It also refers to the ‘business of a professional’, for example, of a lawyer or doctor.

The word ‘practise’ is a verb. It means ‘to repeat an activity’, ‘to undertake a pattern of behaviour’ or ‘to pursue a profession’.

Example

It’s not good practice to use long sentences.

The new law graduate landed an internship at his lecturer’s practice.

Practise your speech until it is perfect.

She hopes to practise medicine.

precede/proceed

The verb ‘to precede’ means ‘to come or go before in time, order or importance’.

The verb ‘to proceed’ means ‘to go about something (in a particular way)’ or ‘to go forward or on further’.

Example

The manager tends to precede staff meetings with an anecdote to put people at ease.

Given the circumstances, it is best to proceed cautiously.

The director managed to proceed with the next point on the agenda, despite the interruption.

principal/principle

The word ‘principal’ is a noun or an adjective. It means ‘first in rank or importance’ or ‘chief’.

The word ‘principle’ is usually a noun. It means ‘a fundamental truth or law as the basis of reasoning or action’. It also means a ‘personal code of right conduct’ (often plural).

Example

The principal of the school made a compelling appeal for funding.

Equal rights and self-determination of people is a principle of international law.

They refused to sacrifice their principles for financial gain.

program/programme

Use ‘program’ rather than ‘programme’, including for computer programs.

Use ‘program’ for the titles of new programs based on government policy. Use ‘programme’ only when it is part of the formal name of an existing program.

Example

One of the most challenging aspects of our work is designing programs that can be implemented quickly.

The Prescription Shopping Programme lets medical practitioners check their patients’ prescription histories.

regardless/irregardless

Always use ‘regardless’. It means ‘without regard’, ‘independent of’ or ‘anyway’. It is often followed by ‘of’.

‘Irregardless’ is likely a combination of the words ‘irrespective’ and ‘regardless’. It is not accepted as standard Australian English.

Example

Our aim is for all staff to have access to this training, regardless of location.

The following instructions will work regardless of which mobile platform you use.

These are interesting times but we must carry on regardless.

stationary/stationery

The word ‘stationary’ means ‘not moving’.

The word ‘stationery’ means ‘writing and office equipment’ such as paper, pens and paper clips.

Example

The truck collided with a stationary car.

The notebooks are in the stationery cupboard.

that/which

The words ‘that’ and ‘which’ are both relative pronouns.

They should not be used interchangeably. Your choice can alter the meaning of your sentence.

To make your writing clear, use:

  • ‘that’ for essential information
  • ‘which’, with punctuation, for non-essential information.

For examples, refer to guidance about pronouns.

their/there/they’re

The word ‘their’ is the possessive form of ‘they’. It shows ownership.

The word ‘there’ means ‘in or at a position or location’. It is also used to introduce sentences.

‘They’re’ is the contraction of the pronoun ‘they’ and the verb ‘are’.

Example

Their manager bought a cake for morning tea.

If you‘re leaving for the conference now, I’ll have to meet you there later.

There is a problem we need to manage.

They’re all in a meeting until 2 pm.

would have/would of

Sometimes people mishear the verb form ‘would have’ as ‘would of’. Always write ‘would have’ or the contracted form ‘would’ve’. ‘Would of’ is incorrect.

Correct

If I had known we were over budget, I would have changed the scope of the contract.

This would’ve spared us a lot of stress

Incorrect

At the very least, we would of avoided the overspend.

Release notes

The digital edition builds on information from the sixth edition about ‘variable spellings’.

The Content Guide had information on ‘preferred spellings’.

About this page

References

Little W, Fowler HW and Coulson J (1973) Shorter Oxford English dictionary on historical principles, Oxford University Press, New York.

Oxford University Press (2017) Australian concise Oxford dictionary, 6th edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

This page was updated Monday 6 September 2021.

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