Do you find yourself confused by English words that are either too close in meaning or similar in spelling? You are not alone if you sometimes pause for a moment before using the word ‘borrow’ (or is it ‘lend’?), or wonder if the past tense of “pass” is written passed or past? There are several reasons why this type of confusion is so common among English learners. With an average of 4 new words being added to the English language every day, there are bound to be word pairs, or triplets, that sound or look similar due to their spelling, pronunciation or both. If you have learned English mostly through reading and writing, it can be difficult to discern the pronunciation of words that you don’t hear often. On the other hand, if you have picked up your English more through speaking and listening, you may not be familiar with English spelling and punctuation. For this reason, it is important to learn new vocabulary in both the written and spoken context.
English is full of homophones!
Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Examples of homophones include the following:
The best way to familiarize yourself with English spelling is to read and write as often as possible. Keep a list of words with tricky or unusual spelling and test yourself from time to time. If reading isn’t your thing, try to write down new words you hear just to visualize the spelling. This will help you remember the word faster even if you’re not a visual learner.
Beware of false friends!
False friends are words that appear in the same or similar form in two or more languages albeit with different meanings. An example of this is the English word “actual”. In English, “actual” is an adjective that describes something that is real or authentic. However, the word ‘actual’ in many other languages means ‘recent’ or ‘current’, like the word aktuell in German or actual in Spanish. Due to this, many non-native speakers mistakenly refer to the news or trends as “actual” when in fact they mean to say that something is current or trendy. Obviously, false friends can lead to misunderstandings if we blindly trust that similar words have similar meanings from language to language.
Word family inconsistencies
Wouldn’t it be great if we could apply a consistent pattern to vocabulary depending on the part of speech of each word? In some cases these patterns are relatively predictable. Take the word “plan” as an example: the noun is a plan, the verb is to plan, and the adjective is planned or planning. Fortunately, this type of vocabulary is relatively easy to remember. Unfortunately, not all word families make this much sense.
Just like many verbs are irregular when they change to the past tense, we also have to consider how a word changes depending on whether it is the verb, noun, adjective or adverb in the word family. The words ‘advice’ and ‘advise’ are two words that are often confused. Have a look at the entire word family: to advise (verb) – advice, advisability (nouns) – advisor or adviser (also nouns, with regional variation in spelling) – advisable, inadvisable, advisory (adjectives), advisedly (adverb). The correct spelling and pronunciation of the verb advise (pronounced /ədˈvaɪz/) and the noun advice (pronounced /ədˈvaɪs/) are understandably difficult for non-native speakers to master.
Other word families confuse English learners because they overlap with other word families. You can see this overlap in the word families of ‘lie’ (to be in a horizontal position), ‘lie’ (to say something that is untrue) and ‘lay’ (to put something down on a surface).
What should we do about confusing words?
In most cases words look or sound alike due to sheer coincidence. Considering that English is a language with a 26 letter alphabet and a liking for three and four letter words, it simply wouldn’t be possible to create a completely unique word every time. Although we can’t help but ask ourselves why some words are so similar and confusing, the more practical question is how best to learn their appropriate use.
The most efficient way to learn commonly confused words is to do so gradually. Try not to get overwhelmed by the volume of English vocabulary, but instead make note of confusing words in example sentences and make an effort to practice using them in context.
Find a list of commonly confused words below:
In alphabetical order when possible
Any time or anytime?
We use any time when we are talking about an amount of time.
Example: I am not sure if I have any time for coffee today.
Note: we use the word any for questions and negatives, while we use some for positive statements.
When we use anytime as one word, it means whenever or at any time. The exact time is not important.
Example: You can pay me back anytime. (it doesn’t matter when).
Anyway, any way or anyways?
Anyway is a synonym of regardless and can be used to say what was previously said doesn’t matter.
Example: I couldn’t find the cake you wanted, but anyway I brought you a dessert.
Anyway can also be used to change the subject.
Who did I see you with yesterday?
-Oh, I can’t remember now. Anyway, what are you doing next weekend?”
Any way, written as two words, has the same meaning as by any means.
Example: Let me know if there is any way I can help you.
Anyways is colloquial, only used in informal speech and has the same meaning as anyway.
Example: I wasn’t expecting you. Anyways, come right in.
Beside or besides?
Beside is a preposition meaning next to.
Example: There is a chair beside the table.
Expressions with the preposition beside include beside the point or beside the question, meaning something is off the subject or irrelevant.
Example: My colleagues couldn’t stay on topic and kept talking about issues that were beside the point.
If you are beside yourself it means you are experiencing any extreme emotion like worry, anger or excitement.
Example: I was beside myself with worry when I couldn’t find the children.
Besides is a preposition similar to apart from.
Example: What did you do yesterday besides going to work?
Besides can also be an adverb similar to moreover or anyway.
Example: I’m too tired to go to the party. Besides, I wasn’t invited.
Borrow or lend?
Borrow means that a person receives something and will return it later. Grammatically, we can use borrow similarly to take.
Examples: I borrowed the book from the library.
Typical mistake: She borrowed me her book.
Correct: She lent me her book or I borrowed her book.
Lend means that a person gives something to someone for an amount of time. Grammatically, you can use it similarly to give.
Example: My brother lent me his car.
Briefly or shortly?
Briefly means for a short amount of time.
Example: Can we speak briefly about next week’s conference?
Shortly means soon.
Example: Please wait here. The doctor will see you shortly.
Economic or economical?
Economic means related to the economy.
Example: The EU imposes economic sanctions on foreign countries as a last resort.
Economical means having prudence or good value in terms of efficiency of resources and money.
Example: It is important to look for a car that is both safe and economical.
Every day or everyday?
Every day, written as two words, means each day.
Example: I go shopping every day.
Everyday is an adjective and refers to something that is common or usual.
Example: He’s wearing his everyday clothes.
Historic or historical?
Historic is used to describe a famous or significant event.
Example: Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington was an historic event.
Historical describes something related to history.
The King’s Speech is a film based on historical events.
Intense or intensive?
When people or situations are intense, they show or evoke strong emotions or opinions.
Example: I left the dinner table when the discussion became too intense.
Intensive means thorough or vigorous.
The recruit underwent intensive military training before he was given his first assignment.
Personal or private?
If something is personal, it relates to a specific or intended person. Personal also refers to someone’s private life, relationships, and emotions rather than one’s career or public life.
Example: I hate talking to Brad. He always asks such personal questions!
If something is private, it is confidential or only intended for specific people.
Example: Please don’t read that letter. It’s private!
Recipe, receipt or prescription?
A recipe is the instructions used for cooking or baking.
Example: This cookie recipe calls for three cups of sugar.
A receipt is an invoice for goods or services purchased.
Example: Make sure to get the receipt for the curtains in case you need to return them.
A prescription is an official slip from a doctor that prescribes a specific medication.
Example: I need to refill my prescription for painkillers. There are only five tablets left.
We can also use the word prescription to describe a rule or recommendation.
Example: The congressman laid out the party’s prescription for economic recovery.
Raise or rise?
Raise is used in the active sense. It requires a direct object, i.e. you raise something.
Example: I raise my hand.
Rise does not take a direct object and is used in the passive sense.
Example: The sun rises.
Safety or security?
Safety is the protection from harm or injury, whether the harm is caused intentionally or not.
Example: For your own safety, it is advisable to wear a helmet while on the construction site.
Security refers to protection from intentional harm, including theft, robbery and assault.
Example: The bank is equipped with an alarm system, armed guard and video surveillance to ensure security at all times.
Say or tell?
When we use tell, it is necessary to mention whom the message was spoken to by using a direct object (the people, the audience, my sister, etc.) or a direct object pronoun (me, you, him, her, them, us).
Example: He told me he would be late to the meeting.
You can also use tell with the ‘to infinitive’ to give orders and advice.
Example: The doctor told me to drink plenty of liquids.
With the verb say, the focus is on what was said, rather than to whom, and say is not used with a direct object or direct object pronoun.
Example: He said he would be late to the meeting.
Typical mistake: The teacher said me to be quiet.
Correct: The teacher told me to be quiet or the teacher said to be quiet.
Sensible or sensitive?
Sensible is related to the mind and logic and we use it to say something is rational or practical.
Example: Saving a part of your salary every month is a sensible thing to do.
Sensitive is related to feelings or well-being.
If you are sensitive to others, it means you are caring and considerate of their feelings.
If you are sensitive, it means that your feelings become hurt or you become emotional easily.
If you have sensitive skin, it means that your skin needs a lot of care to stay healthy as it becomes irritated easily.
Some time, sometime or sometimes?
Some time refers to an amount or span of time.
Example: Please give me some time to answer the question.
Sometimes is an adverb of frequency meaning occasionally. It can refer to the past, present or future and implies repetition.
Example: I sometimes watch tv.
Sometime is an adverb meaning at some point in the future. It refers to a time in the future that is not yet known.
Example: Let’s meet sometime next weekend.
Topic or theme?
A topic is the subject matter. The topic is what the book, film, novel, discussion, etc. is about.
Example: The topic of today’s meeting is next year’s budget.
A theme is the broader idea or message of a story.
Two major themes in Hamlet are power and revenge.