The most commonly mixed-up words in English, explained (part 1) …

Accept / Except

These words sound very much alike but they mean different things.

Accept is an action word (verb) broadly meaning to take something in. Other AC words meaning to take something on board include acquire, acknowledge, acclimatise.

To accept may mean to say ‘Yes’ to receiving an actual thing:

We accept cheques.

Donations of good quality second-hand clothes are gratefully accepted.

It can also refer to agreement with an idea or a state of affairs:

Scientists now accept Darwin’s theory of evolution.

After the incident with the trifle and the photocopier, the Chairman accepted Bertha’s apology.

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If a word has EX at the beginning, it often means something beyond or outside the norm. So we have extend, expel, excellent and many others.

Except is no exception. (See what I did there?) It also means outside what is normal, or all of this… but not that. It’s from a Latin phrase meaning take out. You might make the connection by remembering that the word except excludes things (both beginning with EX).

Examples:

You can press any of the buttons except the big red one. 

Except for Jim, all the karaoke singers were tone deaf.

Every one of them was purple, without exception.

So, the street sign showing a line through a picture of a dog, with the words Except Guide Dogs, is fine – it means No dogs allowed here apart from Guide Dogs.

But what happens if you use except in the wrong place? Here are some classic mix-ups:

            We except your apology. 

            We except cheques. 

Written like that, it’s almost like saying you throw the apology or the cheques out. So don’t write it like that!

Advice / Advise

This is purely a spelling problem – you don’t usually hear anyone saying the wrong word. It happens simply because C and S can each be pronounced ‘SSS’ sometimes. But not in this case.

First, of course, you’ve got to be aware that these two spellings exist. If you go through life thinking there’s only advise, it’s no wonder that’s what you’d use all the time.

Here’s some nice advice… Well, that was it. Advice rhymes with nice. And its ending is spelt the same way. Just say your sentence out loud – if you’re saying the soft ‘SSS’ sound, spell it with -ICE on the end, like nice.

You may not be able to see it or pick it up, but advice is a thing (a noun). Examples:

I’m looking for some advice.

The advice was much appreciated.

We will never listen to her advice again.

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Advise is pronounced with a hard ‘ZZZ’ sound (like realise, organise, compromise, etc). And like all of those, advise is an action (a verb). Eg:

I advise you never to start a language argument with an editor.

A financial advisor advises people about investment.

They got stuck in a swamp after Bertha advised them to take the scenic route.

Affect / Effect

Oh, the trouble these cause! And I’m not surprised.

Many grammar books or websites will tell you that affect is a verb and effect is a noun, as if that’s all the help you need. That’s fine if you are absolutely sure what nouns and verbs are – you can stop right here. If you’re not sure, it has to be the most useless piece of advice ever given. (And besides, there are lesser-used exceptions.)

So we need to break this down further.

To affect means to cause a difference to something else. With this meaning, affect is an action word (a verb). It can be useful to remember that action also begins with the letter A.

You might find yourself adding -ED or -ING endings on the word, too. That’s a clue that it’s an action word, so you need the spelling that begins with an A. Examples:

How will this decision affect you?

Our travel plans were affected by the storm.

Environmental change is affecting animal habitats.

This affects all of us.

All of those examples show that a difference has been caused – something or someone is affected. (Or has been, or will be.)

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An effect is a noun (a thing), and it means a result of an action. If you can put the directly in front, then you need the word effect, starting with the letter E.  Spot the two Es together – the effect. Examples:

The effects of the storm were everywhere.

We made a significant investment but have yet to see the effect.

There might be describing words in between, but you should still understand that the is connected to effect:

The [terrible / dramatic / awe-inspiring] effects of the storm…

It might be an effect or this effect. But if you can replace it with the effect and still make some sort of sense, then you need the E spelling. You can use the question ‘What is the effect?’ to help you remember.

But effect does not always need the word ‘the’ in front. Eg:

What effect do you think compulsory Morris dancing will have on morale? [Asking what the effect will be.]

Common phrases that catch people out include [with] immediate effect and good effect, eg:

The new law comes into immediate effect. [This means that the effect is immediate.]

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