Commonly confused sound-alike words: Vols. C and D

Befuddlement arises when two words have similar pronunciations, are frequently mispronounced or have related but distinct meanings.


The words in the following list represent misunderstanding of the words’ meanings and not simply an inability to spell them correctly. This post covers words starting with the letters c and d (the a-b list is here).

1. canvas/canvass

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary both show the spelling canvas as a variant spelling of the verb “to canvass,” but Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook and Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage agree that the verb meaning “to survey” is spelled with a double s. The spelling canvas is a noun signifying a heavy cloth.

2. clench/clinch

Although both words share an origin, in modern usage they are not interchangeable. You clench your fist or teeth, but clinch a deal or a victory. In boxing, “to clinch” means “to grapple at close quarters.” As a noun, clinch is used colloquially to mean “an embrace.”

3. compliment/complement

Both words may be used as either nouns or verbs. A compliment is a praising remark; a complement is something that enhances or completes. “To compliment” is to praise”; “to complement” is “to complete.”

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4. conscience/conscious

Conscience is a noun that refers to the sense of right and wrong in an individual. Conscious is an adjective that means “awake” or “aware of.”

5. corporal/corporeal

Both words are adjectives that mean “of the body,” but in modern usage corporeal is used in philosophical or theological discussions in which the animal body is compared with the spirit. For ordinary references to the body, corporal is the usual word. For example, one might refer to “the corporeal existence of Jesus,” but to “corporal punishment.”

6. denote/connote

“To denote” means “to indicate.” “To connote” means “to imply or suggest.” A squiggly red line under a word in a corrected essay denotes a misspelled word. Words like mother and home connote warmth and comfort.

7. deserts/desserts

In the idiom “to get one’s just deserts,” the word deserts is often misspelled as desserts. For other uses and pronunciations of desert and dessert, see this post: Just deserts vs. just desserts.

8. discrepancy/disparity

A discrepancy is an inconsistency, for example, a discrepancy between a person’s date of birth might exist between different sources. A disparity is a lack of equality. A common topic of concern is the disparity between the earnings of men and women.

9. disinterested/uninterested

Although the distinction is ignored by many speakers, style guides advise that uninterested should be used to describe mere lack of interest, whereas disinterested should be reserved for use in the context of neutrality. For example, some students are uninterested in schoolwork, whereas a third-party mediator is disinterested in the dispute being arbitrated.

10. discreet/discrete

Discreet means judicious or circumspect. A discreet friend can be trusted not to tell all he knows about your private affairs. Discrete means “distinct, separate, not connected.” It’s the opposite of continuous. Charles Dickens published his novels in discrete parts that could later be fused as an uninterrupted whole.

A version of this article originally appeared on DailyWritingTips.com.

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