English words are notoriously difficult to spell; a mishmash of different origins has created a collection of words with no discernible logic. “Choose to lose”? Why isn’t it “Choose to loose” or “Chose to lose?”
The truth is that many similar-sounding words can be differentiated only through familiarity and practice, just as we simply know the difference between “ate” and “eight.” Until we commit the difference to memory, we will always risk declaring that the coffee table “compliments” the couch (“Nice cushions!”) when we mean “complements.”
I could delve into the roots of our troubling language and its chaotic, cobbled-together nature, or simply give you a few homemade rules of thumb for some of the more troubling words that can’t always be settled with your computer spell-checker.
- Affect or Effect? Usually, “affect” is an action, which begins with the same letter. “Effect” is generally a noun. So one thing affects another — or has an effect on it. There are exceptions, as always: When we speak of “effecting” change, we turn the noun into a verb. And “affect” can also be a noun, as in “He assumed a snobbish affect.” But in the most common, everyday uses of the two words, you can stick with the basic differentiation.
- Aural or Oral? Think of “audio” and you’ll remember that “aural” indicates hearing. “Oral” has to do with the mouth, as in “oral health.”
- Complement or Compliment? Something complements another by completing it; note the first six letters are the same.
- Consensus or Concensus? When a group reaches consensus, it has given consent to an idea. No, it’s not about giving your opinion to a census taker.
- Principal or Principle? The principal is still your pal, at least when it comes to the human version of this homonym.
These are just my favorites; if you’re a spelling maven, share your own.