Confusing English Words
Some words are spelled very similarly but have different meanings. Often the meanings of these similar words are related, but sometimes they are not.
Another problems is when words have similar meanings but are used in different circumstances, such as the commonly confused words ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.
This is what makes some words so confusing in the English language. Some native speakers even get them mixed up!
The way a word is pronounced can also cause problems.
This is because a slight mispronunciation of a word, where the stress is placed on the wrong syllable, can completely change the meaning of the word.
Here are a few of the most commonly confused English words:
Commonly confused words in English
advice / advise
‘I need to give my friend some advice’.
I need to advise my friend’.
compliments / complements
‘Pass my compliments on to the chef’.
‘The colour of your t-shirt really complements your eyes’.
pour / pore
‘I poured myself a drink‘
‘She pored over her books for hours‘
principle / principal
‘It is the principle of the matter that really counts‘
‘The principal problem in the essay is the bad grammar‘
conform / confirm
‘It is important to conform to expectations’
‘I need to confirm my doctor’s appointment’
note / notice
‘You should take notes at the meeting’,
‘The notice clearly stated that they were not allowed to smoke’
‘He always notices if you wear a new tie’
‘They ate apple crumble for dessert’
‘The camels walked for five hours across the Sahara desert’
‘She accepted the gift with thanks’
‘She enjoyed all the books, except the horror novel’
‘The garden is quite big’
‘You must be quiet when studying in the library’
barmy / balmy
‘He is crazy – completely barmy!’
‘What a balmy evening – perfect for dining outside’.
affect / effect
‘The medicine affected the patient instantly’ (‘to affect’ is a verb meaning ‘to change’)
‘He affected illness to avoid going to the party’ (less commonly, ‘to affect’ can also mean ‘to fake/pretend’ something)
‘The effect of the medicine was instant’ (‘the effect’ is a noun meaning ‘the change’)
‘The upcoming exam effected their desire to study’ (less commonly, ‘to effect’ is a verb meaning ‘to cause’)
course / coarse
‘The English language course was easy to understand’
‘Plot a course for that island, Captain. We will set sail tonight’
‘The texture of that wool is really coarse. I prefer smooth fabrics’.
pedal / peddle
‘Press your foot on the accelerator pedal to increase the speed’
‘The street seller decided to peddle his goods around the town’
angry / hungry
‘She was angry when the bus driver missed her stop’
‘I am always hungry by 8pm – that is my dinner time’
Interestingly, there is actually a word to describe the anger, irritation and negative emotions many people feel when they get too hungry – it combines the two words ‘hungry’ and ‘angry ‘ to form the brilliant ‘hangry‘!
fewer / less
The words ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ are commonly confused among native English speakers. For example, in supermarkets you will often find a sign saying ’10 items or less’ over the express checkout, when this should read ’10 items or fewer’.
‘Fewer’ is used for countable nouns – situations where there is more than one subject. For example:
‘There are fewer apples than oranges on the shelf’
‘The fewer items we take with us the lighter our bags will be’
‘Fewer people are studying maths this year’
‘Less’ is used for uncountable nouns or for situations where there is only one subject. ‘Less’ is also used for numbers on their own or for measurements. For example:
‘I listen to less music since my stereo broke’
‘He earns less money in his new job‘
‘It is less important to be smart than it is to be nice’
‘Eat less food to lose weight’
‘Nottingham is less than ten miles away’
‘Seven is less than eight’
‘She took less than one week to finish the book’
Let us know your thoughts on confusing English words
Check out our blog post for more confusing English words for EFL students.
Which words or word combinations do you find most confusing in English?