You’re on your way to figuring out how to keep from making common mistakes. Part of stepping out of common mistakes is to be ready to avoid words that are frequently confused with other words. Sometimes they sound the same, and sometimes they look the same. Knowing which words to look out for can help you be ready to revise them correctly.
- Confusing: cite, sight, site
The English language can be really confusing! Here we have a fantastic example: three words that sound identical, two of which that also look very similar on paper, but all of which can be easily confused for the other. Let’s straighten it out:
“cite” means to refer to a source of information. (Example: “Make sure to cite Mark Twain as the author of the quote, ‘The secret to getting ahead is getting started.’”) You cite Mark Twain when you tell others he is the author of the quote.
“sight” refers to a perception you have through vision. (Example: “The sight of Lady Liberty always makes me reflective and thankful for our liberties.) Here, seeing the Statue of Liberty makes me think about being a free American.
“site” is a place. (Example: “The site of the oldest existing government building in New York is now a museum.”) In this example, “site” is the place where the government building used to be housed, but which now hosts a museum.
- Confusing: conscience or conscious?
If you’re a fan of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries (whether the BBC, movies, or books!), you’ve probably run into the difference between conscience and conscious. They sound exactly the same, but mean completely different things. “Conscience” is the feeling you have that there is a difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. “Conscious” just means that you’re aware of something occurring, or that you’re awake when something occurs. Consider this example:
I’m deeply conscious of the fact that my conscience is deeply rooted in a desire to be kind to other people.
This sentence can be reworded to help us understand the differences between the terms:
I’m deeply aware of the fact that my sense of right and wrong is deeply rooted in a desire to be kind to other people.
By the way, if you’ve heard someone talking about the “subconscious” or the “unconscious”, they mean a mental state or a brain state, so those will always related to awareness instead of morality.
- Confusing: elicit vs. illicit
These two words function differently in a sentence: “elicit” is a verb that means to draw out (usually as a response) and “illicit” is always an adjective that means illegal. For example:
The police were able to elicit the location of the illicit drugs from the person who saw them being sold.
- Confusing: eminent, immanent, imminent
As a budding scholar, you should know each of these words (all of which are pronounced the same), and be able to use them in conversation and in writing. They are fantastic words! The first, “eminent”, means someone who is famous for doing something well. “Immanent” refers to a trait that is innate or internal to something, and “imminent” points out that a thing or event is about to occur. Try out this sentence:
The eminent poet in the field was able to show that rhymes used by Dickinson were immanent to her works, which can only make new interpretations of her work imminent.
Context tells us what these words mean, so that we can “translate” this sentence:
The top poet in the field was able to show that rhymes used by Dickinson were inherent in her works, which can only make new interpretations of her work available very soon.
- Confusing: its and it’s
Probably around the fourth grade, you ran into the possessive problem of “its”. You remember when you learned that the apostrophe showed that something belonged to someone, “Jill’s laptop” means the laptop belongs to Jill, “Beverly’s basset hound” shows that the basset hound belongs to Beverly, etc. But, like many instances of English grammar, the possessive of an unspecified thing—it—is not “it’s”. Rather, “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”, so that “It’s obvious that it’s about to snow,” means “It is obvious that it is about to snow.” “Its”, on the other hand, is exactly how you write the possess16ive for an unspecified object, “When you see the tractor, you’ll see its flat tire,” means that the flat tire belongs to the tractor.
- Confusing: lie, lay
Part of what makes “lie” and “lay” confusing is that “lie” means for some person or some animal to lie down (“Gustavo’s back is sore, so he is going to lie down,”) but “lay” means to place an object down (“Iron Man laid the mini-ARC reactor down on the table where he could use it later”). Of course, “lie” also means to intentionally say something that is not true, but that usually isn’t a confusing use of the word.
One trick that might help clear up the confusion is to remember that people can tell lies, so people can lie down. A city can lay at the bottom of a valley, but it can’t lie at the bottom of the valley because a city can’t tell lies.
- Confusing: passed and past
I think the single most confusing of the most-confusing words for you is passed and past. “Past” always refers to either a time or a place. The term usually isn’t confusing when it means time, but it can be when it means place. Here are two good examples:
You can’t hang on to the pain of the past. (time)
If you’ve gone past the Philosophy Building, you’ve gone too far. (place)
“Passed,” however, is a verb. It is the past tense (can you believe that—the past tense!) of the verb “pass”, which means movement. So, “passed” means to have moved. Consider:
Usain Bolt passed all of the runners when he blistered his way to a gold medal.
In this example, the runner, Usain Bolt, is fast, and he moved beyond (he “passed”) all of the other runners.
- Confusing: principal and principle
Hopefully, you’ve had a principal who has taught you the difference between ‘principal’ and ‘principle’. If you’re like me, your principal will have told you that a principal is always a ‘pal’. Whether your principal is your pal, you still can revise your exam by knowing that a principal is someone who has authority. (So, if you’re using ‘principal’ as an adjective, it’s going to mean whatever is most important. For example, “Of principal importance is that you prep for the SHAT!” means that it is most important that you prep for the exam.) “Principle”, however, is some rule or guideline, “Isaac Newton might not have gotten hit in the head with an apple, but he still gave us the principle of gravity.”
- Confusing: than, then
You will definitely see these two words—correctly, or incorrectly—on the SHSAT. “Than” is always a comparison, and “then” indicates whatever comes next in time. Here’s one sentence that encapsulates the difference between the two:
“Heather would rather eat with Brandon than with Jamen, but if she eats with Jamen, then she will also eat chocolate.”
The “than” in the example is used as a comparison between lunch partners (she prefers Brandon). The “then” in the passage sets up a sequence: if one thing happens, another will occur. In the example, if it’s the case that she eats with Jamen, Heather will also eat chocolate during lunch.
- Confusing: their, they’re, there
It’s worth repeating, because you will definitely see these words on the SHSAT ELA sections, but you need to know the differences between these three words by heart prior to the exam.
“Their” is a possessive of “they”. Example: Their math teacher was going to have a baby, so they would need to have a substitute.
You might expect “they’re” to be possessive, but it’s not. “They’re” is a contraction between “they” and “are”. Example: “They’re not going to build a Kroger at that abandoned warehouse.”)
“There” means some kind of place, and is a sister of “here”. “Here” points out some place close to the speaker, and “there” points out some place that is farther away. Example: “When you get there, make sure to give Mom a hug for me.”