Stop Mixing Up These Words in Your Instructional Writing

A woman presses her fingers to her temples and winces. Behind her are squiggly lines with arrows
This post clarifies some commonly confused words that instructional designers often get mixed up in their instructional writing.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Introduction

Using the wrong word can illicit averse reactions and confuse readers. Being careful with word choices (i.e., affect vs. effect) helps insure that readers understand your message.

How many issues did you spot in those two sentences? If you didn’t come up with four, keep reading!

Instructional designers wear a lot of hats. We are often called upon to be developers, analysts, graphic artists, trainers, writers, and editors (among other roles). This post focuses on the writing and editing parts of the job. I’ll discuss some commonly confused words I’ve noticed many of us struggle with. 

Affect vs. Effect

If I asked 100 people to list the commonly confused words they have the hardest time remembering, I’m confident that “affect” and “effect” would be at or near the top of the list.

Although there are some exceptions, in the most common uses, the following apply:

  • Affect is an Action.
  • Effect is a noun.

EXAMPLES:

  • The keynote presentation affected the attendees greatly.
  • The keynote presentation had a great effect on attendees.

Here’s a mnemonic that can help you remember the difference between these two words. (I wish I knew who came up with this idea so I could give them credit.)

The acronym, "RAVEN," spelling out the phrase, "Remember, Affect is a Verb. Effect is a Noun. (Usually.) The background has a silhouette of a raven.

Assure vs. Insure vs. Ensure

This triple threat also ranks near the top of the list of commonly confused words. People often use “assure” or “insure” when they mean “ensure,” but they are not interchangeable.

  • Assure refers to removing a person’s doubts. It’s an action that’s done to or for someone else (so it requires a direct object).
  • Insure refers to insurance policies.
  • Ensure means to make sure or guarantee.

EXAMPLES:

  • The instructor assured the class that the test was open book.
  • If you’re a freelancer, it’s a good idea to insure your business.
  • Always ensure that you’re using the correct word.

Adverse vs. Averse

These two words are easy to mix up, because they’re both adjectives that have to do with opposition.

  • Adverse means unfavorable or harmful and usually describes things, like a reaction or effects. If you were allergic to commercials, you’d have an adverse reaction to advertisements.
  • Averse means a strong feeling of dislike and describes how a person feels.

EXAMPLES:

  • Learners have an adverse response to too much lecture.
  • Learners are averse to too much lecture.

Discreet vs. Discrete

This is the word pair that I mix up most often. To keep them straight, I think about the placement of the two Es in each word.

  • Discreet means careful not to attract attention. The two Es in this word are right next to each other, so I think of them having a secret affair and trying to keep it quiet. (It may be weird, but whatever works, right?)
  • Discrete means separate and distinct. The two Es in this word are separated by the T.
The word "discreet" showing the two "e's" with eyes, looking at each other suggestively. The word "discrete" shows the two "e's" separated by the "t."

EXAMPLES:

  • The bright red logo on every slide is distracting, so can we use a black and white version to be more discreet?
  • The course is made up of three discrete modules that can stand alone.

Elicit vs. Illicit

Unless you write about legal matters, you probably won’t need to use “illicit” in your instructional writing.

  • Elicit means to draw out a reply or reaction. Elicit means evoke.
  • Illicit means not allowed by law or rules. If something is illicit, it’s illegal.

EXAMPLES:

  • We distributed a survey to elicit feedback from learners.
  • The company has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to illicit drug use.

Lead vs. Led

It’s no wonder a lot of people confuse “lead” and “led.” The word “lead” is similar to “read” in that it can be pronounced two ways, with either a long or short “e” sound. But while the word “read” is spelled the same in the present and past tenses (but pronounced differently), the past tense of “lead” is “led.”

  • When pronounced as “LEED,” lead is a verb meaning to direct or guide. When it’s pronounced as “LED” (but spelled “lead”), it’s a noun referring to a type of metal.
  • Led is the past tense of the verb, lead. Here’s a sample sentence that might help you remember the spelling: “Ted led his daughter down the aisle to be wed.”

EXAMPLES:

  • The instructor leads the class in a discussion.
  • Superman can’t see through lead.
  • We are creating an instructor-led course.

i.e. vs. e.g.

Many people use these two abbreviations interchangeably, but they mean different things. You can remember which is which by paying attention to the first letter of each.

  • I.e. stands for id est, which means “in other words.” Remember “i” for “in other words.”
  • E.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means “for example.” Remember “e” for “example.”

EXAMPLES:

  • Her favorite superhero is the one she thinks is funniest (i.e., Spiderman).
  • She likes Marvel superheroes (e.g., Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor).

When using i.e. and e.g., always use periods after each letter, and add a comma after the second letter (as in the examples above). I also strongly prefer putting the phrase in parentheses to offset it from the rest of the sentence.

Of course, you could avoid the confusion altogether by spelling out what you mean, such as saying “for example” or “in other words.”

Summary

The first two sentences of this post should have read: 

Using the wrong word can elicit adverse reactions and confuse readers. Being careful with word choices (e.g., affect vs. effect) helps ensure that readers understand your message.

What are some commonly confused words you get mixed up? Let me know in the comments. 

For more tips to strengthen your instructional writing, check out these posts:

I also highly recommend the Grammarly and Grammar Girl blogs for more great tips.

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