Terrible Twins

We’ve all had our run-ins with these words that I call the ‘terrible twins’ – those words that are pronounced the same or similar, but are spelt different and mean different things. Sometimes the meanings are very close while at other times they are almost opposites. And there might be just one letter difference between their spellings. Not to mention that both words are sometimes closely related with one deriving from the other. Here is a list (not total) of those ‘terrible twins’ and brief meanings (some have many related meanings, so I have put the main one).

access –  to gain admittance

assess – estimate officially the value of …

bare – without covering or clothing

bear – to hold up, support or carry (also an animal) There were 27 definitions in the Macquarie Dictionary!


biaannual – twice a year

biennial – every two years

born – brought forth into independent being or life

borne – past participle of the verb bear. To confuse matters, the spelling born was also used up until recently.

broach – to mention or suggest for the first time

brooch – clasp for ornament for a dress (derives from broach)

calendar – any of various systems of reckoning time

calender – a machine in which cloth, paper, or the like is smoothed, glazed, etc., by pressing between revolving cylinders

cannon – a large gun for firing heavy projectiles

canon – an ecclesiastical rule or law enacted by a council or other competent authority

canvas – closely woven, heavy cloth of hemp

canvass – to solicit votes, subscriptions, opinions etc.

coarse – composed of relatively large parts or particles

course – the path, route or channel along which anything moves

compliment – expression of praise, commendation or admiration

complement – something that completes or makes perfect

chord – a string of a musical instrument

cord – a string or small rope

councillor ­– a member of a council

counsellor – an adviser

currant – a small seedless raisin

current – flow, as in a river, or belonging to the time actually passing

desert – an area that supports only sparse or no vegetation

dessert – the final course of a meal

discrete – detached from others; separate; distinct

discreet – wise or judicious in avoiding mistakes or faults

dual – two parts

duel – a prearranged combat between two persons

faint – lacking brightness, vividness, clearness, loudness etc. Also to lose consciousness

feint – a movement made with the object of deceiving. Also, the lightest weight of line used in printing ruled paper (var. of faint)

grill – a barbecue

grille – a lattice or openwork screen, such as a window or gate

groin – fold or hollow where the thigh joins the abdomen

groyne – small jetty built out into the sea or river in order to prevent erosion of the beach or bank

lead – a heavy metal

led – past tense and past participle of lead (pronounced leed) … to show the way

loose – free from bonds or restraint

lose – to come to be without and not know the whereabouts of

male – as in the male gender (men) of animals and humans

mail – letters, packages sent by post. Also flexible armour of interlinking rings

meat – flesh of animal

meet – to come into contact with

metal – any of a class of elements, as gold, silver, copper etc.

mettle – the characteristic disposition or temper

meter – an instrument that measures

metre – a metric  unit of length (except US and Canada where the spelling is meter)

naturalist – someone versed in or devoted to natural history

naturist – nudist

palate – roof of the mouth

palette – a board or tablet used by painters to lay and mix colours on

pallet – movable platform on which goods are placed for storage or transportation

A terrible triplet!


peak – the pointed top of anything

peek – to have a quick look at something

pique – to wound (pride, vanity etc.) or to excite (interest, curiosity etc.)

another triplet!

personal – individual, private

personnel – the body of persons employed in any work, undertaking, or service

plain – clear or distinct to the eye or ear or a large area of flat country

plane – a flat or  level surface, or an aeroplane

principal – first or highest in rank

principle – an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct

prise – to raise, move, or force as with a lever

prize – a reward of victory

queue – a file or line of people, vehicles etc.

cue – a hint, an intimation, a guiding suggestion. Also a stick used in billiards.

quiet – making no noise or sound

quite – completely, wholly or entirely (adverb)

root –  underground part of a plant

route – a way or road taken or planned for passage or travel

stationary –  not moving

stationery – writing materials

storey – a complete horizontal section of a building

story – a narrative, either true or fictitious

straight –  without a bend, direct

strait – a narrow passage of water connecting two large bodies of water

tail – hindmost appendage of an animal

tale – a story

tea – a refreshing hot drink

tee – something you put a golf ball on to tee off

team – persons associated in a joint action

teem – to abound or swarm

their – possessive form of they

there – in or at that place

throes – any violent convulsion or struggle

throws – the act of hurling a projectile through the air

tic – sudden, painless, muscular contraction

tick – slight, sharp recurring click or beat. Also a blood-sucking mite-like animal

timber – wood used in building

timbre – quality of a sound

turbid – opaque or muddy

turgid – pompous; or swollen; distended

waive – relinquish

wave – disturbance of the surface of a liquid body

This is just a sample of those terrible twins and triplets. Some I left out because their spellings are interchangeable dependent on the style used by particular publishers and media. The ones highlighted in red are ones I have noticed writers mix up quite often. These are also words that a spell checker on a computer will not pick up. All spellings are in Australian English with reference from the Macquarie Dictionary.

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