Don’t say the wrong thing

JD Hancock via photo pin cc


One of the most amusing aspects of watching television is having a giggle at the captions and titles that appear on the screen.

They’re sometimes featured as captions on TV programs. Other times they’re prominently displayed on expensive-looking commercials. And the reason these captions make me laugh – and shake my head in disbelief – is that they can contain significant mistakes.

In some cases, they appear to be written by someone who hasn’t actually discovered that there is this really useful book called a dictionary. The wrong words are used or confused with similar sounding ones. I realise that some readers might think that I should devote my time to more productive things than editing the words that appear on television but what can I say? It’s an occupational habit.

However, these mistakes don’t just appear on television. I see them on websites, signs, and billboards and throughout social media. If your communication is littered with the wrong words, what kind of message is this sending to people?

Here are some words I’ve frequently seen misused lately. Make sure you avoid these mistakes.

1. Elicit/illicit
To elicit means to draw out a response from someone.

Example: He wanted to elicit an agreement from shareholders.

However, illicit means illegal or unlawful.
Example: He distributed illicit drugs from his ice-cream van.

2. Draws/drawers
It hurts my eyes when I see the word draws when the writer means drawers. When you put your socks and undies away, they go in your drawers, like a ‘chest of drawers’. NOT a chest of draws. Just do a quick scan of the furniture on eBay and you’ll find this mistake countless times. It’s simply wrong. If you’re talking about a piece of furniture, use the word drawers.

You only use the world draws when referring to the verb drawing. Example: She draws all over the table. He draws water from the well.

3. Accept/except
To me, these words have such different meanings that it confounds me that people can get them mixed up. Yet, I see it all the time. So don’t worry if you mix them up, you’re not alone!

Accept means to receive something that has been offered to you, or believe. Example: I accept your apology. I accept your idea that the sky is purple.

Except means ‘with the exclusion of’.
Example: Everyone went to these meetings except for Michael.

4. Discreet/discrete
Again, these words have very different meanings, so make sure you’re using the correct one.

Discreet means to be prudent or restrained.
Example: Managers were told to be discreet about the appointment of the new CEO.

Discrete means separate.
Example: The sale items were displayed in a discrete area of the store.

5. Loose/lose
If I had a dollar for every time these words were used incorrectly, I’d be a billionaire. Okay, maybe not a billionaire, but I’d have lots of dollars!

Loose means unrestrained or not bound together.
Example: Without their leads the dogs ran loose.

Lose means to fail to win or now know the whereabouts of something. Example: Did the Swannies lose the game? I didn’t mean to lose your ring.

6. Fewer/less
Supermarkets all over the country perpetuate the incorrect use of these words with the ubiquitous signs: ’12 items or less’. The correct usage is ’12 items or fewer’. Why is this so?

Fewer is used when referring to people or things that can be counted. (You can count ‘12 items’ so the words ‘fewer’ should be used.)

Less is used when referring to something that cannot be counted or which does not have a plural.

Example: I wish my teenage son would listen to less music. There is less fabric in that dress than in a tea towel.

This article first appeared on

About Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo is founder and national director of the Australian Writers' Centre, the country's leading centre for writing courses. She is a journalist, blogger and author. Her latest book is "Power Stories: The 8 stories you MUST tell to build an epic business" (Wiley). Valerie is a keynote speaker, small business commentator, and investor and mentor to startups and businesses in Australia.
  • Nicola

    And then there’s specific and pacific!
    Good post Valerie. I think it’s a sad sign that people just don’t read enough these days so they can’t recognise the differences between these words. Or they only read facebook posts which would be clever if only they were spelt right – like “My phone battery last longer than your relationships.”

    • valeriekhoo

      Specific and pacific. Oh YES!

  • Glenn Mabbott

    Can we have a common language primer too/to/two please Valerie.
    I find some Aussies still confuse You’se for ewes. I love you’se all, even the goats who like to box.

    • valeriekhoo


  • Alvaro

    your so right 😉

    • valeriekhoo