The Little Book of Confusables: Simple spelling and usage tips to help smart people avoid stupid mistakes

by Sarah Townsend

This book disambiguates 600 commonly confused words. Examples include: aggravated, agitated; a lot, allot; assume, presume; coherent, cohesive; discreet, discrete; enervate, innervate, innovate; faze, phase; feasible, plausible; flaunt, flout; fortuitous, fortunate; historic, historical; hoard, horde; indolent, insolent; literal, littoral; loath, loathe; sleight, slight; tack, tact; tortuous, torturous; unkempt, unkept; vain, vane, vein; and wet, whet.

I was happy to learn that French quotation marks are called « guillemet ». I’ll be careful not to confuse that with guillemot, “a sea bird that nests on cliff edges.”

One entry that made me pause is draw, drawer, drawers. The author defines drawer as “someone who draws. Or where you keep your drawers.” I thought a person who draws is called a draftsman (U.S. spelling) or draughtsman (U.K. spelling), but in common usage that word possibly connotes technical drawings and schematics. Hmm. Other terms apply to specific contexts, such as portrait artist or cartoonist.


Sarah Townsend is a British author. As an American I’m always happy to learn how our two countries are separated by a common language. Here are some examples.

balmy , barmy. The author defines barmy as “an informal word for crazy.” I had never heard this before.

compare, compere. The author defines compere as “event host.” According to Cambridge Dictionary, the U.S. equivalent is “emcee.” As a side note, I think it’s weird to phonetically spell out the letters of an abbreviation; nobody would spell out Eye-Be-Em instead of writing IBM. M.C. stands for master of ceremonies.

draft, draught. Today I learned “the popular board game—known in American English as checkers—is spelled DRAUGHTS” in the U.K.

faint, feint. The author defines feint as “A sneaky move. With rules, lined writing paper.” I’d never heard of feint-ruled paper. In the U.S. there is wide-ruled paper and college-ruled paper. And, of course graph paper for math class.

lets, lets, let’s. The author defines lets as “rented properties.” I’ve never heard a rental property called a let in the United States. Signs in the U.S. say “for lease” whereas signs in the U.K. say “to let.”

merengue, meringue. Today I learned that an “Eton mess” is a British dessert with strawberries, meringue, and whipped cream.

price, prise, prize. The author says prise means “force open, or get something with difficulty.” I’m not familiar with this word. Cambridge Dictionary says the U.S. spelling is prize. I would use the word pry.

British Spelling

Townsend writes in the introduction (but not in the sales copy) that her examples are based on British English usage. “My tips and examples are based on British English usage. While I hope The Little Book of Confusables reaches and helps English speakers around the world, some content may not apply to all audiences.”

Sometimes she calls out American English spelling variants, but in other cases she doesn’t. Here are some examples which could lead American readers astray:

counsellor, councillor. In American English each word has one l.

dependant, dependent. The author defines dependant as “a person who depends on you, such as your child” whereas dependent means “reliant upon.” In American English both words are spelled dependent.

leant, lent. In American English the past tense of lean is leaned, not leant.

license, license. The author says licence is a noun and license is a verb. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration and the California Department of Motor Vehicles disagree. Americans spell driver’s license with an s.

omelette, umlaut. An omelette is, of course, “a simple supper made from eggs.” In American English it may be spelled either omelette or omelet. Unless you accent that last syllable (like baguette, cigarette, silhouette) the latter spelling makes more sense to me.

practice, practise. The author says the first spelling is a noun and the second spelling is a verb. In American English both are spelled practice.


It appears, at least in some cases, technology words retain the spelling from the place where they were developed.

The author writes, “In British English, DISC describes a thin, flat, circular object—such as a compact DISC—while DISK is more common in computer-related use, such as a hard DISK. To remember the difference, think of the C of Circular.”

I would add that in American English, disk refers to a thin, flat, circular object—and the computer storage media refers to exactly the same thing. A floppy disk contains data stored on a circular piece of magnetic film. A hard disk contains data stored on one or more rigid magnetic platters. A disk drive reads and writes data on the spinning disk.

So then why are Compact Discs spelled with a c, even in America? Because Philips, a Dutch company, owns the patents and trademarks. They required their licensees to use their Compact Disc logo on CD technology.

Another example is program, programme. “British English typically uses PROGRAM for anything computer-related, and PROGRAMME for everything else. American English uses PROGRAM for both meanings.” Perhaps this is because much of the software documentation in the early days of information technology came from American computer companies.

The Little Book of Confusables reminds me of a similar book I reviewed back in 2015: 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses by the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries.

Townsend, Sarah. The Little Book of Confusables: Simple Spelling and Usage Tips to Help Smart People Avoid Stupid Mistakes. Self-published, 2022. Buy from

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