A homonym is a word that sounds roughly the same as another word but is very different in meaning. We’ve already covered the importance of using the spell-check function when completing all job search documents, and the use of grammar, word choice, and apply to the written as well as the spoken word.  Here are some commonly confused homonyms that sound the same but are often confused when writing:

  • Amount, Number & Quantity. Amount is used for things you can’t measure. Number is a specific quantity of a plural something.  Quantity is used for things that can be measured.  Examples:
    1. “There was a large amount of humor in his speech.”
    2. “Only a small number of fish remained alive in the aquarium.”
    3. “The quantity of honey remaining in the jar is significant.”
  • Adverse and Averse. Adverse means to be against; antagonistic, harmful, or unfavorable, such as being in an adversarial position. Averse means to avoid.  Examples:
    1. “The storm had an adverse effect on completing the harvest.”
    2. “My investment style is one of being risk-averse.”
  • Affect & Effect. These two words can trip up even the best of writers. Pronounced almost the same, the difference is in the first letter. Make sure you know the difference between this set of homonyms.  Examples:
    1. “My business networking efforts directly affect the company’s performance for the quarter.”
    1. “The effect of my networking efforts helped the company raise double the amount of funds over the previous year.”
  • Compliment & Complement. Compliment means point out something favorable, while complement means to add to or improve.  Examples:
    1. “I want to compliment you on your excellent work on this project.”
    2. “Your skill set and Susan’s seem to complement one another.”
  • Discreet & Discrete. Discreet means cautious, while discrete means separate.  Examples:
    1. “We are discreet in the manner in which we handle confidential documents.”
    2. “The company has a discrete method for identifying sales leads.”
  • Elicit & Illicit. Elicit means to ask for or request, while illicit means something illegal.  Examples:
    1. “Your request at the staff meeting seemed to elicit a lot of comments.”
    2. “Harry could get arrested for his illicit activities.”
  • Farther & Further. Modern usage has been so blurred on these that many use the two words interchangeablyFarther describes a physical distance while further describes a figurative degree, extent, or amount.  Examples:
    1. “I traveled 6 miles farther today than yesterday.”
    2. “There have been no further developments since we last spoke.”
  • Imply & Infer. The person speaking or writing implies (hint at something but doesn’t state it directly) while listeners infer (deduce meaning for what was said or written).  Examples:
    1. “I’m don’t want to imply that Steve is opposed to your ideas.”
    2. “From what was said, I infer Steve is opposed to my ideas.”
  • Inquire & Enquire. The two words are almost interchangeable. Enquire carries a broad but less formal sense of asking, while inquire is more formal.  Examples:
    1. “May I enquire how your health is doing since you got over the flu?”
    2. “The police are conducting an inquiry into what I did and didn’t know.”
  • Insure, Ensure & Assure. All three words share in the concept of making something sureInsure generally means to guard, protect, or compensate against loss. Ensure means to do or possess what is necessary for success.  Assure means to promise something with confidence.  Examples:
    1. “State Farm will insure us against any loss we might suffer as a result.”
    2. “I will ensure that every step is taken to complete the job by Friday.”
    3. “Let me assure you that you will be happy with your choice.”
  • Its & It’s. These three letters put together can form one word or two words simply by the break of an apostrophe. Its is possessive, while it’s is a contraction of it is.  Examples:
    1. “Increased its department size by 50 percent.”
    2. It is [or It’s] the first product of its kind to enter the market.”
  • Precede & Proceed. Precede is to go before or be in front of.  Proceed is to move forward or ahead. Examples:
    1. “Susan preceded you and arrived first.”
    2. “Susan, you may proceed with handing out the tests.”
  • Principal & Principle. Principal means first or of high importance, while principle means fundamental or a belief.  Examples:
    1. “This provision is of principal importance to the negotiation.”
    2. “The principle of fairness is what will be used to evaluate the proposals.”
  • Than & Then. Than is used to express difference, while then means a time or followed by.  Both sound the same. Take care in your writing to distinguish which is the proper word to use.   Examples:
    1. “Increased sales by more than 50% in the second year of the product’s launch.”
    2. “Started in an entry level position and then advanced to a managerial position in two years.”
  • Their, There, & They’re. Their is a possessive (his, her, and their).  There is a place.  They’re is a contraction of they are.  Examples:
    1. “Secured their standing on the market by… ”
    2. There are 100 employees at the company.”
    3. They are [or they’re] the top three marketers of… ”
  • To, Two, & TooTo is a preposition that often means destination.  Two is a number.  Too means also or in addition to.   Examples:
    1. “I am going to meet with an interviewer.”
    2. “I will be meeting with two interviewers today.”
    3. “I will be meeting with a second interviewer, too.”
  • Verses & Versus. Verses refer to a song, poem or Bible passages.  Versus places two things in opposition.  Examples:
    1. “I wrote the first verse to the song.”
    2. “My project lead to savings of 60 percent, versus the potential loss of… ”
  • Who’s & WhoseWho’s is a contraction of who is or who hasWhose is the possessive of who.   Examples:
    1. “Who’s got change for a ten dollar bill? Who’s upset that I don’t have change?”
    2. “Whose signature is on the letter?”
  • Your, Yore & You’re. Your is a possessive, like his, her and their.  Yore is something that happened a long time ago.  You’re is a contraction of you and are.  Examples:
    1.  “I am interested in your job posting on… ”
    2. “Let me tell you a tale of yore…”
    3. You are [or you’re] going to see a link below to my writing samples.”

English is one of the world’s most challenging languages because of words that sound the same, or have multiple but unrelated meanings.  There are a number of other commonly confused words to be aware of in your job search, such as “principal” or “principle” and “incite” or “insight.”  Your ability to write a professional and error-free cover letter, blog and résumé is a reason for an employer to want to follow up with you. Even if you have the specific qualifications to meet what the employer is looking for, poor proofreading of your documents can disqualify you.

To learn more, Google “commonly confused words” and follow the links!

Hank Boyer is CEO of Boyer Management Group, works with employers and job seekers alike to help them become more successful. See his two newest books on job search at Amazon.com.

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