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In the English language, there are many words that sound alike but have completely different meanings, which can cause a lot of issues for beginners. The solution is to study and practice them all, and that’s when we come along.

So, in this article, we will learn:

  • What do confusing words mean in English?
  • A list of the most commonly used confusing words.

Let’s get right into it.

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What Do Confusing Words Mean In English?

The English language is full of confusing words that share a similar spelling, meaning, or pronunciation, but they carry a completely different meaning and usage. So, when speaking or writing English, you might find yourself pronouncing a word, but ending up creating the wrong one.

man with hand on forehead

List of commonly confusing words used

The following is a list of pairs or groups of words which are commonly confused. You have to be careful to choose the right one in the context of the given sentence.

Raise – is a regular verb & takes a complement VS Rise – is irregular (rose, risen), no complement

  • They raised the flag.
  • The sun rises in the east.

Earn – about salary win – about games VS gain – with other expressions

  • She earns a lot in bonuses.
  • They always win at poker.
  • He’s gained a lot of weight/time, etc.

Cash – bills or coins VS Change – what’s left after paying VS Currency – the money of a country

  • She took cash from the machine.
  • Here’s your change.
  • The Euro is a new currency.

Accept – take something that’s offered VS Except – not including

  • She didn’t accept their offer.
  • I’ll take everything except the keyboard.

Affect – to have an influence on VS Effect – an event or situation produced by a cause

  • The loss of her job greatly affected her.
  • The policy change had little effect.

Fee – amount paid generally for a service VS Fare – money paid for travelling

  • The doctor’s fees were very high.
  • The bus fare will increase next year.

Say – we say something (to someone) VS Tell – we tell someone something

  • He said he was going to be late.
  • He told his wife that he was going to be late.

Insure – to buy insurance VS Assure – to make certain VS Ensure – to make safe or sure

  • She insured her new car.
  • I assure you that it will arrive tomorrow.
  • We ensure passenger safety.

Their – possessive pronoun VS There – used with to be They’re – contraction of the are

  • Their car was stolen.
  • There isn’t anyone in this room.
  • They’re all going home.

To found – to establish VS To find – to discover

  • The company was founded in the 1960s.
  • He found a solution to the problem.

Affect – to influence VS. Effect – to accomplish

  • His motivation has affected me to do better.
  • Can you make such an effect without attending your classes?

Allusion – indirect reference. VS. Illusion – false perception of reality

  • The new author made an allusion to Harry Potter’s books.
  • I thought I have seen a ghost, but it was just an illusion.

All ready – prepared. VS. Already – by now, by this time

  • The kids were all ready when their father arrived.
  • I was already waiting for you when you called.

A part – to be joined with. VS. Apart – to be separated.

  • Can I become a part of your basketball team, please?
  • Dave and Mellisa have grown apart and now they are getting a divorce.

Breath – noun. Inhaled or exhaled air. VS. Breathe – verb. To inhale or exhale.

  • I can see your breath in the cold air.
  • Breathe in before you dive into the ocean.

Cite – to document. VS. Sight – vision

  • I cited every word the professor said.
  • The sight of the mountains is breathtaking.

Complement verb, to complete; noun, something that completes VS. Compliment – to praise.

  • The red wine complements a nice seafood meal.
  • My friend always compliments my perfume.

Conscience – the sense of wrong and right/ VS. Conscious – awake.

  • Your conscience kept you from cheating on the exam.
  • My husband was conscious when the burglar got inside the house.

Counsel – to advice. VS. Council – A group of people that consults.

  • I was strictly counseled by the teacher after detention.
  • The men and women on the council voted in favor of the hometown.

It’s – it is. VS. Its – belonging to it.

  • It is a lovely day today.
  • The dog follows its owner wherever she goes.

Lead – Type of metal. VS. Led – the past tense of ‘to lead’

  • Our pipes are made of lead.
  • The guides led us to this gorgeous forest.

Lay – to lay an object down. VS. Lie – to lie down by a person or animal.

  • Amy had to lie down because of her headache.
  • Could you lay down all of your tools?

Lose – not win or to misplace. VS. Loose – not tight.

  • Mom warned me not to lose this game.
  • My jeans are becoming loose.

Than – comparisons. VS. Then – next or at that time.

  • I would rather stay home than go out tonight.
  • I had dinner, and then I took a shower.

Their – Possessive form of they VS. They’re – they are. VS. There – indicates location.

  • Their house is lovely.
  • They’re coming towards us.
  • I will be waiting for you there at the bus stop.

Threw – Past tense of throw. VS. Through – into or out of; finished; by means of

  • I threw away everything that belongs to him.
  • I had to walk through all that muddy path to get here.

To – toward VS. Too – excessively, also. VS. Two – a number (2)

  • I went to Paris last year.
  • She had too much to drink last night.
  • I have got two tickets for us.

How do false cognates work?

On the other hand, confusing words can also be ‘false cognates’ (faux amis) whereby a word may resemble a word in another language, but may not necessarily be correct in English:

  • to attend a meeting or a conference’ – ‘assist’ means to help
  • ‘to postpone a meeting’- ‘report’ is used in ‘I report directly to the marketing director.’
  • ‘The company increased their turnover/profits.’ – ‘benefits’ means something extra a company pays their employees (health insurance, for example).
  • Is he actually the head of the department?’ – here ‘actually’ means ‘really’
  • ‘He is currently/presently acting as department head. – here ‘currently’ or ‘presently’ means ‘now’
  • ‘It’s a very sensitive topic for her, so don’t mention it.’ – ‘sensitive’ means something upsets you easily
  • She’s made a sensible decision.’ – ‘sensible’ means showing good judgment.
  • ‘You should arm yourself with the right tools’ – ‘arm’ means to have.
  • ‘I will enjoy every drop of this juice’ – ‘drop’ here means droplet.
  • ‘My favorite season is fall’ – ‘fall’ means the season that comes after summer and before winter.

drawing of a confused man in front of a question mark sign

Standard Expressions and Confusing Words Combination

There are certain typical combinations of words in English.

For example, we say ‘Please give a warm welcome to Ms. James, our next speaker. We do not say ‘a warm hello’ or ‘a hot welcome’.

🡲 One way is to find all the different words that can be combined with common verbs and effect, such as ‘make or ‘do’:

  • Make: a reservation, progress, up one’s mind, a mistake, a speech, a phone call, a deal, a good impression, a request, a complaint, a profit, money
  • Do: one’s best, one’s duty, as I say, not as I do, business, homework, a good job, a favor, the accounts, an experiment, harm

🡲 Other verbs don’t have as many expressions:

Run: a business, a machine, like clockwork

Expressions with prepositions and nouns

🡲 Other expressions include prepositions – you can organize them like this:

  • On behalf of, on account of, on the whole, on average
  • In general, in regard to, in connection with, in accordance with

🡲 Sometimes there are 2 nouns put together for a specific meaning which you can organize as follows:

  • Product launch, product placement, product life-cycle
  • Market share, market leader, market segment, housing market

🡲 You can also try organizing by theme:

  • Human Resources: pay rise, layoff, background check, cover letter, be shortlisted
  • Finance: cash flow, go bankrupt, remain stable, steady increase, tax evasion, cash withdrawal

Idiomatic expressions and confusing words

There are many, many idiomatic expressions which every language contains. These expressions are used to get an idea across often using colorful or amusing language. Some may be similar to the ones in your language.

  • ‘As red as blood’, ‘green with envy’, ‘as busy as a bee’
  • ‘to be under the weather’ means someone isn’t feeling well
  • ‘it’s a piece of cake’ means something is easy

You can organize them like this:

  • ‘Caught red-handed’ (caught with proof of doing something illegal)
  • ‘Give a hand’ (help someone) ‘Out of hand’ (out of control)
  • ‘Once in a blue moon’ (not very frequently) ‘Out of the blue’ (unexpectedly)

And be careful, just because some expressions look similar, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing:

  • ‘get straight to the point’ (speak directly about a subject)
  • ‘get your point across’ (make yourself understood)

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