How to proofread tricky words

They say English is the world’s most difficult language to learn. And proofreading certainly has its challenges. The English language may be blessed with many words, but quite a few set out to trip us up.

Here are some of the most common words that even the best English writers confuse and which are important to look out for when proofreading.


Many businesses like to think of themselves as the most unique in their industry. But ‘unique’ means truly one of a kind. Therefore, you cannot be the ‘most unique’ or ‘one of the most unique’ or the ‘only unique’. You are unique or you’re not.

Affect vs. Effect

Affect is a verb that means ‘cause a change in’ or ‘influence’.

Effect is mostly used as a noun, although when we write in a formal style we occasionally use it as a verb meaning ‘to carry out’ or ‘cause to happen’.

She was greatly affected by the sad news. Smoking will affect your health.

Take care of your personal effects. The sound effects are amazing. The lawyer effected a great result.

Compliment vs. Complement

Compliment, as a noun, means ‘an expression of praise or admiration’ and as a verb ‘to pay a compliment to’.

As a noun a complement is ‘something that completes or makes perfect’ and as a verb means ‘to complete’.

When you compliment mum’s new car, mention how well the colour complements her eyes.

Principal vs. Principle

People dedicate their lives and careers to upholding principles of truth and justice.

Principals are people who head schools.

A school principal should always stick to her principles.

Advice and advise, practice and practise, licence and license

Advice is a noun, and advise is a verb, just as practice is a noun and practise is a verb. Likewise, licence is a noun, and license is a verb.

Noun: Take his advice.

Noun: She runs a large accounting practice.

Noun: Take my driving licence with you.

Verb: I advise you to keep quiet.

Verb: I will practise every day.

Verb: We need to get the hotel licensed.

Disinterested vs. Uninterested

Uninterested is the opposite of interested.

Disinterested means impartial or unbiased (but not a lack of interest).

A referee should be disinterested in the game, but interested in the match.

Everyone vs. Every one

Everyone means every person, as in people. It is singular, as is everybody, anybody, anyone, no-one, somebody and someone.

Mistake: Everyone danced their socks off.

Instead: Everyone danced his socks off.

Every one is also singular and we use it to describe objects.

Mistake: Every one of the cars were new.

Instead: Every one of the cars was new.

Fewer vs. Less

Fewer means a smaller number of things or people.

Less means a smaller amount or quantity of a single thing.

Mistake: Less cars, less dogs, less people.

Instead: Fewer cars, fewer dogs, fewer people.

There are fewer students at university these days. Less paper usage means less waste.

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