Here are some pairs of words that are often confused. If you’ve ever written about someone facing a “nerve-wracking” experience or someone who’s gotten his “just desserts,” (and I’ve written both!) then you may be interested in these:
AVERT/AVOID – Avert means to prevent or turn away from something. Avoid means to shun or stay clear of something completely.
DESERT/DESSERT – A desert is a dry region of the earth. A dessert is the sweet finish to a meal. Desert is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable; dessert is pronounced with emphasis on the second. However, one who gets what he deserves is said to have received his “just deserts” and this time, it’s pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable.
NAUSEATED/NAUSEOUS – If you feel nauseated, you are ill. If something made you feel that way, it could be considered nauseous. You do not feel nauseous. Some dictionaries will argue this point, because nauseous has been so commonly misused that the more liberal sources are willing to count it as an Americanized usage.
RACK/WRACK – Rack means to torture, strain, stretch or punish: one is racked with guilt or deals with a nerve-racking situation. Wrack means destroyed: one who is racked with worry can be anxious because they are on the verge of wrack and ruin.
REGRETFULLY/REGRETTABLY – If someone is full of regret, they act regretfully. The thing that causes that regret is regrettable; regrettably, that’s the way it is.
SOURCE: “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Conner. ©1996 by Patricia T. O’Conner.