English Grammar Guide for ESL


In this section: Description, Exercises



Over the last 500 years, the way we pronounce words has changed significantly, but not the way we spell them! In some cases, a letter that once represented a sound is now silent, in other cases, it now represents a different sound. All this means that our spelling system is flawed and can be a source of confusion (it's not you, it's the spelling!). In the following section, we discuss some of the most frequently confused words in English.

accept, except

Accept is a verb meaning "receive", e.g.: I will accept your kind offer; except is a function word that indicates an exclusion, e.g.: I read everything except the ending.

adapt, adopt

Adapt means "adjust", e.g.: She adapted to the new conditions; adopt means "take on" or "take responsibility for", e.g.: They adopted her when she was an infant.

adverse, averse

Adverse means "harmful" or "negative", e.g.: The proposal will have an adverse effect on our finances; averse means "against", e.g.: I am not averse to staying another week.

advice, advise

Advice is a noun meaning "information" or "suggestion", e.g.: My advice would be to leave in the morning; advise is a verb meaning "provide information", e.g.: She advised us to save as much as possible.

affect, effect

Affect is a verb, e.g.: The change will affect us all; effect is a noun, e.g.: The change will have a positive effect (affect usually follows a subject, while effect usually follows an article like the or an).

aid, aide

Aid means "help" or "assistance", while aide refers to a person who helps ("an assistant")

allusion, illusion

An allusion is a reference to something, e.g.: The audience picked up on his allusion to the past; an illusion is something that isn't real, e.g.: The water on the road was merely an illusion.

anymore, any more

Anymore as one word means "no longer", e.g.: I don't want to work anymore; any more as two words is used for quantities, e.g.: I don't want any more bread.

bale, bail

Bale refers to a bundle (e.g.: a bale of hay); bail is for everything else (e.g.: to get out of prison or to stop your boat from sinking!).

bass, base

Bass refers to low sounds; base means "bottom" and is used for most other things (baseball, military, etc.)

beech, beach

Beech is a type of tree; beach is where the sand and water is.

brake, break

A brake stops your car, break is used for everything else (e.g.: take a break, break the glass).

breathe, breath

You breathe in a breath (so breathe is a verb and breath is a noun)

but, butt

But is a conjunction used to introduce a contrast; butt means "end".

cite, site, sight

Cite means "refer to" or "quote"; site describes a location and sight means "vision".

coma, comma

Coma means "deep sleep"; comma is a punctuation mark.

cue, queue

Cue is a signal or the stick you play pool with; a queue is a line-up.

decent, descent, dissent

Decent means "good" (e.g.: He's a decent person); descent means "go down"; dissent means "not agree".

desert, dessert

Desert is where it is hot and dry; a dessert is what you eat after dinner (if you're good!).

dew, due, do

Dew is moisture; due means "expected" or "required"; do is used for everything else.

dual, duel

Dual means "consisting of two parts"; a duel is a battle between two people.

elicit, illicit

Elicit means "produce", e.g.: ... to elicit a response; illicit means "illegal".

fare, fair

Fare refers to money paid for entry and it can also mean "do" (e.g.: to fare well); fair means "equitable" and also refers to an agricultural gathering.

flare, flair

A flare is a burst of light; flair means "aptitude" or "style".

fowl, foul

Fowl refers to chickens, etc.; foul means "offensive" or "not right".

hear, here

Hear refers to the ears; here is the present location.

heel, heal

Heal is a verb meaning "get better"; a heel is part of the foot.

hoard, horde

Hoard means to "accumulate excessively"; horde refers to a large group (think Walking Dead).

hock, hawk

Hock means "knuckle" or "to put in a pawn shop"; a hawk is a bird.

hole, whole

You find holes in the ground and in your old sweaters; whole means "complete" or "entire".


Its is a possessive pronoun, e.g.: The dog chased its tail; it's means "it is".

led, lead

OK, this is a bit confusing: led is the past tense of the verb lead (pronounced "leed"), e.g.: She led them to victory; lead, which rhymes with led, is a metal (e.g.: a lead pipe).

lets, let’s

Lets is the "he/she" form of the verb meaning "permit", e.g.: He lets them sleep until noon; let's means "let us", e.g.: Let's do it tomorrow (it is the "we" form).

lose, loose

Lose is the opposive of win; loose is the opposite of tight.

maybe, may be

Maybe as one word is an adverb meaning "perhaps"; as two words, it is a substitue for "could be".

moot, mute

Moot means "irrelevant" or "uncertain" (e.g.: a moot point); mute means "silent".

pole, poll

A pole is a stick for wires (you know what we mean!); a poll is a survey.

pray, prey

A prey is a victim or a verb that means "hunt"; pray is a verb meaning "speak to God" or "hope".

proceed, precede

Proceed means "move forward"; precede means come before; procede is just gobbledygook.

reign, rein, rain

Kings and queen's have reigns; horses sometimes have reins, wet days have rain.

riffle, rifle

Riffle means "go through quickly"; a rifle is a gun.

role, roll

Actors have roles; roll refers to things and actions that are circular.

root, route

Plants have roots; a route is a way or path.

sale, sail

Department stores have sales; boats have sails (I guess a boat store could have sails on sale).

seam, seem

It seems that the seam in your pants is torn (enough said).

see, sea

See is a verb meaning "sense with the eyes"; a sea is a large body of water.

soar, sore

Soar is what eagles do; a sore is something that hurts and/or needs to heal.

sole, soul

Sole refers to the bottom of your feet or a type of fish; the soul is the spiritual part of you.

than, then

Than is used in comparisons (e.g.: bigger than ...); then means "after" or "next".

there, their, they’re

There refers to locations; their is a possessive (e.g.: She likes their house); and they're means "they are".

theirs, there’s

Theirs is a possessive (e.g.: The book is ours, not theirs); there's means "there is";

too, two, to

Too means "excessive" (e.g.: That costs too much); two means "2"; to is a preposition used everywhere else.

vary, very

Vary means "differ"; very means "really".

wait, weight

Wait means to "stay" or "be patient"; weight refers to how heavy or light something is.

wear, were, where

Wear is a verb referring to clothing; were is a past form of the vereb be; where refers to locations.

weather, whether, wether

Weather refers to heat, rain, snow, wind, etc; whether means "if"; wether refers to a castrated ram.

wet, whet

Wet means "moist"; whet means "to sharpen".

who’s, whose

Who's means "who is"; whose is a possessive pronoun (e.g.: The girl whose mother is French ...).

wile, while

Wile means "devious strategy"; while is used for everything else (take our advice, just use while).

wit, whit

Wit means "good sense" or "clever"; whit means "small amount".

wood, would

Wood comes from trees; would indicates a condition.

wring, ring

Wring means "squeeze and twist"; a ring is for your finger.

your, you’re

Your is a possessive pronoun (I have your book); you're means "you are".

In this section: Description, Exercises

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