English words that often get confused

Sometimes people get words confused because they look or sound similar; some are confused because they are rarely used or because people hear other people misusing them.

We have 110 items in the database.

abdicate / abrogate

To abdicate means that a monarch resigns from office, e.g. The king abdicated in favour of his son. The word abrogate means to end an official agreement or law.

accede / exceed

To accede to a request is to agree to it; to exceed something is to go over/above a specific limit in terms of such things as speed or quantity.

accept / except

We accept something when we agree to take it. The word except points out someone or something that is different. We all agreed except for John.

adjacent / adjoining

Adjacent means nearby but adjoining means directly connected.

advice / advise

Advice is a noun (She gave him some good advice.) and the second is a verb (I advise you to…..).

affect / effect

Affect relates to someone or something having an influence: His illness affected him badly. The noun effect concerns the result of something. The effect of the stock market crash was disastrous. Less commonly, effect is used as a verb meaning to cause something to happen The company will effect these changes immediately.

afflict / inflict

Something bad afflicts someone (He was afflicted by malaria.). Someone inflicts themselves or something else on someone. (The Australians inflicted a stunning defeat on the English cricket team.)

aggravate / exacerbate

Aggravate means to annoy someone, probably in an on-going way not just one-off; exacerbate means to make a situation worse.

all ready / already

We are all ready to go; in other words, all prepared. This is different from already as in They have already left; something has happened previously.

all right / alright

Your answers are all right (correct). Contrast this with the adverb alright which means things are fine or generally OK but perhaps not excellent.

altar / alter

A church or other religious building has an altar; the word alter means to change something. She altered the design of the jacket.

ambiguous / ambivalent

Ambiguous means that there are two or more possible meanings to a sentence (Below the garage was burning.). Ambivalent refers to someone who is unsure about something; He was ambivalent about the proposal.

amiable / amicable

Amiable = friendly and easy going, generally used for people; amicable also relates to easy going relationships and describes the relationship between two people or perhaps it describes an agreement or even disagreement. (They agreed to have an amicable disagreement.)

amoral / immoral

Amoral means that a person has no morals; immoral means that someone has low or poor morals.

annex / annexe

Annex is a verb ( Japan annexed part of China before WW2. ) An annexe is a place which is adjacent to a larger building.

antagonist / protagonist

An antagonist is an enemy; someone you are fighting. A protagonist describes a main character in a novel or play, or it could be used to describe someone pushing a particular social or political agenda, or viewpoint. They are the main protagonists in this political battle.

assure / insure

Assure means to make certain yourself or to overcome someone else’s uncertainty; I’d like to assure you that I am well. Insure has to do with protecting yourself again loss or damage or injury. I want to insure my car.

astronomy / astrology

Astronomy is a science and it deals with observing stars and planets while astrology is a belief that life is influenced by the stars and planets.

atheist / agnostic

An atheist believes that god does not exist; an agnostic is not sure whether god exists or not.

aural / oral

The word aural relates to what we hear and the word oral to what we say.

backward / backwards

If my son does poorly at school someone could regard him as backward. The word backwards simply describes the direction of movement. He tried to walk backwards.

bale / bail

He has many bales of hay on his farm. The word bail relates to emptying a boat of water to stop it sinking. Another meaning relates to the payment that someone makes to a court so that person can stay out of prison while waiting for a case to come to court.

beside / besides

Beside relates to position; She sat beside me in the train. Besides means in addition to.Besides oranges, what other fruit do you like?

burned / burnt

When we use the verb burn in the past tense we use burnedHe can’t cook. He burned a chicken last week. We use burnt as an adjective to describe something: the burnt chicken.

cannon / canon

cannon is used by soldiers and it fires bullets or shells; the word canon is used in various ways to do with Christianity, formal rules or laws, collections of literature or a type of choral music.

canvas / canvass

Canvas is a type of strong cloth (used in Levis jeans). To canvass votes is to approach people to persuade them to vote for your political party; to canvass opinions is to ask people for their view on specific topics.

carat / carrot

Carat is a measurement for gold or diamonds; a 24-carat gold watch. carrot is a root vegetable.

censor / censure

A censor is someone who, for example, classifies films and decides if they aere suitable for public viewing. It can also be a verb: His letters were censored while he was in the army. To censure something is to criticise it officially; The opposition censured the government over the war in Iraq.

cereal /serial

Cereal is breakfast food made of things like wheat and barley. A serial often relates to a programme on the radio or tv which goes on for a long time and is built around a set of characters.

chord / cord

Chord relates to music and is a combination of notes; cord is a type of thick-ish string or rope.

cloths/ clothes

The first is pieces of cloth e.g. cleaning cloths; the second is the clothes or garments that we wear.

complement / compliment

Complement means to enhance something else; to make it better by adding something suitable to it. That jacket really complements the colours of your skirt.

council / counsel

A council is a ruling body, committee or other group of representatives, The Council for Environmental Change. ‘council’ is never used as a verb.Counsel is advice that we give someone else. A counsel is also a type of lawyer. ‘counsel’ is used a noun or verb depending on context.

credible / creditable

credible means believable. The story he told me was not credibleIncredible means unbelievable or to emphasise the exceptional nature of something. She is incredibly hardworking. Creditable relates to an action that deserves credit or praise.

credulous / incredulous

credulous person is one who will believe anything however silly. Someone is incredulous if they see or hear something they are unwilling or unable to believe. He was incredulous when I told him how much I had won on the lottery.

crevice / crevasse

crevice is a small to medium crack in rock; a crevasse is a large crack in an ice-sheet or glacier which people could fall in to.

criterion / criteria

The former is singular and the latter plural because of the Latin base. The most important criterion is honesty. The other criteria are less important.

currant / current

We eat currants (dry grapes). Currents are flows especially of liquids, gases and electricity. The thermal currents carried the hot-air balloon far from home. The strong currents carried the swimmer out to sea. The ampere is a measure of electrical current.

deduce / induce

We deduce something when we work out the meaning from the evidence. We induce something when we cause something to happen; often in the passive form. I was induced into handing over the papers.

definite / definitive

definite answer is one that is one taken when a decision has been made and that decision will not be changed. A definitive answer is one that is (as far as we can tell) absolutely and unchallengeably correct. The judge gave a definitive judgement in the case.

defuse / diffuse

Bombs are defused (made safe). Diffuse light is light that is spread so that it produces a soft glow not a hard, bright light.

dependent / dependant

Children are dependent on their parents; a child is therefore adependant. In other words, the former is an adjective and the latter a noun.

derisive / derisory

If someone laughs or shouts in a derisive way this is intended to hurt and to humiliate. If something is derisory, then people may shout in this way.

desert / dessert

We can cross a desert on a camel; we eat dessert after our main meal.

device / devise

A device (noun) is an object for doing something; I have a device for saving files more quickly. Devise (verb) relates to producing or investing something with a special purpose; I have devised a new way to win in the casino.

disc / disk

We have discs between the bones of the spine, we also have music discs. However, we generally talk about a disk when referring to computers.

discreet / discrete

She won’t say anything; she is very discreet. In other words, it is safe to tell her something; she won’t tell other people. The word discrete refers to something specific which is separate from and significantly different from something else in some way or other. There are discrete departments in our company, although all with the same overall objective.

disinterested / uninterested

Disinterested means that a person has no specific involvement; We need a disinterested judge to make the decision.

draft / draught

The first refers to a bank transfer or bank draft; the second relates to cold wind blowing under a door or between windows.

dual / duel

We talk about a road with four lanes (two in each direction) as a dual carriageway. A duel is word to describe a fight with guns or swords in the past. Sometimes it is used to describe what the protagonists in a debate are doing with the sharp cut and thrust of verbal debate.

dying / dyeing

The first refers to the end of life and the second to colouring hair or cloth. We also use the first if we want something badly; I’m dying to go to the toilet!

eatable / edible

If something is OK to eat it is eatable; Is that apple eatable? We use edible to refer to something that it is possible to eat without ill-effects. Are those berries edible?

elder / older

We use elder to pick out an individual within a family as older in comparison with others. He’s my elder brother. The word older is the comparative form of old; I’m ten years older than my sister.

emigrant / immigrant

Migrants are people who move from one country to another for residence (often permanent). Emigrants leave a country and immigrants enter a country. For example, the UK receives thousands of immigrants each year but many people emigrate from the UK to Australia and elsewhere.

eminent / imminent

Eminent people are well known and often famous for something serious like politics or science. Something that is imminent is something that is about to happen; The fall of the bridge is imminent.

enquiry / inquiry

In British English, an enquiry is something that that we make; Can I make an enquiry about the price of your cars? An inquiry is something that is held by a body or group; The Council is holding an inquiry into the sale of council houses. In American English, the usual term is inquiry rather than enquiry.

farther / further

Farther is to do with distance; It’s farther from Nottingham to London than it is from Glasgow to EdinburghFurther has to do with, for example, additional tasks; He’s got further investigations to carry out before he can be sure.

fictional / fictitious

The word fictional is used to describe, for example, imaginary characters. It’s a fictional story about two people who fly to the Moon. The word fictitious has to do with truth. He came up with a fictitious story to explain his absence.

flare / flair

flare is something that produces a bright light and it is often used on boats or by climbers. If someone has a flair for something, it means that they have a talent for doing something. He has a flair for music.

flaunt / flout

If we flaunt something we show it off in a confident way. She flaunted her new clothes. The word flout is generally to do with ignoring a rule or a law. He flouted the law and sold the watches on the pavement.

flounder / founder

We flounder around when we have problems and we don’t know what to do sp we think about all sorts of options. A ship founders when it is overcome by the waves and sinks.

for ever / forever

These words have various meanings, typically ‘for all time’ or ‘permanently’ (eg. Food does not last forever. or (informally) taking ‘a long time’ (as in: I have been waiting for the bus forever.I want to stay here for ever. ‘forever’ sometimes has a different meaning such as ‘always’,’typically’ or ‘extremely frequently’. (e.g. He is forever making jokes means that makes jokes very often, perhaps too often!

formally / formerly

The word formally means officially or in an official way. The building was formally opened by the Mayor. The word formerly has to do with things that happened in the past. He was formerly a ship’s captain before he retired.

fulfil / fulfill

These are two spellings of the same word, and both are accepted. The past tense for both is fulfilled.

gaol / jail

These are two spellings of the same word, and both are accepted in the UK. The former is not used in the USA.

gorilla / guerrilla

The former is a large mammal and the latter is a fighter in an informally organised army.

hangar / hanger

Planes are kept on a large building called a hangar. A hanger is used to put clothes on, for example, in a cupboard.

hanged / hung

The word hanged is only used when we are referring to someone who was executed. The word hung is the past tense form and past participle of the verb to hang.

hoofs / hooves

These are two spellings of the same word, and both are accepted in the UK.

horde / hoard

horde relates to groups of people. He was surrounded by a horde of autograph hunters. The Mongol horde swept down on the town. The word hoard relates to a collection of hidden coins, gold or food.

human / humane

Human relates to us as human beings. The word humane means treating humans and animals in ways that avoid/reduce suffering/ill-treatment.

idle / idol

If you are idle, you are lazy and inactive. An idol is something that is loved or worshipped. She was my idol. I worshipped her.

illegal / illicit

Illegal means that something is against the law. The word illicit refers to an action which may be against the law or it may simply be not generally acceptable in terms of general social norms.

illusion / delusion

Illusions are ideas which are wrong; He has the illusion that he’s good looking. The word delusion is used for ideas which are illogical and against all evidence, and is often linked to mental illness.

imply / infer

imply and you infer. In other words, I hint at something and you pick up on my meaning. He implied that I was fat!I inferred from what he said that she was not to be trusted.

ingenious / ingenuous

The former means clever or inventive; He invented an ingenious way to open bottles. The latter means lacking in any false thoughts or dishonest motives.

its / it’s

The word its indicates possession; He looked at its pawsIt’s = it is.

leeward / windward

The leeward side of a boat is the sheltered side; the windward side is exposed to the wind.

licence / license

With the noun, the former is the UK spelling and the latter is the US spelling. In the UK , the latter is the verb; The boat is licensed to carry 10 passengers.

lie / lay

If we place ourselves horizontally on the floor, then we lie down (verb tolie). If we did this yesterday, then we lay on the floor. I lay on the floor for an hour this morning doing my relaxation exercises. There is also the verb to lay which refers to, for example, laying a table. I laid the table at 8 o’clock.

lose / loose

If you drop something and cannot find it then you may lose it. If you have a tooth which is wobbly, then it is a loose tooth.

may be / maybe

Both mean perhaps but the word maybe can be replaced by perhaps.Are you coming tonight? Well, maybe, but we’ll decide later. However, may be cannot be directly replaced by perhaps. We may be late tonight so don’t wait up for us.

meter / metre

meter is a device for measuring something such as a parking meter or a speedometerMetremillimetre and kilometre are units of measurement of length.

moral / morale

Children’s stories often have a moral to them. The moral of Red Riding Hood may be that young girls should not go wandering in woods by themselves. If we say something is immoral we mean it is evil or wicked. Morale has to do with attitudes especially feelings of confidence, or lack of it. The army’s morale is low after several major defeats.

motive / motif

A motive is a reason for doing something, either good or bad. I suspected his motives when he offered to give her a lift. motif is a particular decorative pattern, often one that is repeated on printed cloth or carved wood.

naval / navel

The word naval relates to the ships and the navy. There were many naval battles in the First World War. The word navel relates to someone’s tummy, specifically the ‘belly button’.

no one / no-one

Both of these are widely used.

notable / noticeable

If something or someone is notable it is worthy of respect and viewed as important. It was a notable victory and the first of many. If something (usually a thing) is noticeable it is a thing that is easy to see and likely to be seen. It was noticeable that his hair had turned white in the year he’d been away.

nutritional / nutritious

Both are adjectives (describing words) but nutritional has to do with broader issues of food processing and absorption. The nutritional impact of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is unchallengeable. The word nutritious deals with whether or not foods contain the minerals and vitamins that can keep us healthy. Oranges are far more nutritious than a hamburger.

passed / past

Passed is a verb and behaves in the normal way that verbs do. He passed his driving test on Tuesday and now he likes to pass other cars. The word past relates to time that has gone by. In the past he was very adventurous.

patient (patience) / patient (in hospital)

It’s the same spelling! He waited for an hour but he was very patient. I was a patient in the hospital for a week. The patients will be seen by the doctor soon. She needed great patience to deal with his annoying habits.

perfunctory / peremptory

The first word has the meaning of an action being done without any real feeling, in a casual way. He gave her a perfunctory kiss. The word peremptory has to do with an action taken in a dictatorial, rather unfriendly, unsympathetic manner. He dismissed my request with a peremptory gesture towards the door.

plane / plain

Planes fly. A plain is an area of fairly flat land. Someone can be plain which means not very attractive at first sight. A plane is also a carpenter’s tool and a mathematical term!

practice / practise

The former is the noun; He wanted some practice every day. The latter is the verb; He wants to practise every day.

pray/ prey

We pray in a church, mosque, temple or other holy place. The word prey relates to the food that animals like to eat. The lions watched their prey but the antelope were unaware.

principal / principle

A principal is the head of an institution, normally an educational one. He is the principal of Marangu Teachers’ Training College . It can also be used for important people or institutions. He is one of the principal conductors in this country. If I have a principle, it is an important rule by which I try to direct my life. If someone has no principles, we might say that they are unprincipled.

recipe / receipt

recipe is something that we use as a guide when we are cooking. A receipt is something that we collect when we purchase something in a shop.

recount / re-count

When we recount a story we re-tell it. He recounted his exploits in Morocco . When we recount something, we count it again. This happened when Bush was elected.

recover / re-cover

When we recover, we get better after an accident or illness. It took him a month to recover after the illness. When we re-cover something we cover it again. I wanted to re-cover my chairs and so I went to buy some material.

regal / royal

The word regal really means royal in appearance and so could be used to refer to someone in a royal family as well as someone who had nothing to do with royalty. She looked very regal whenever she dressed up for the theatre. The word royal is generally to do with a family with historical connections which enable them to be described as royalThere have been a number of scandals in the British royal family.

role / roll

Role has to do with position or job or post. What role did he have in the last play you put on? roll is round and made of bread. It can also be a verb; He rolled down the hill.

sarcastic / sardonic

sarcastic comment is designed to hurt someone. The words used are often contemptuous or mocking. Words are sometimes used in precisely the opposite of what they normally mean. Oh, yes! She looked so ‘elegant’ when she came in. It’s a pity she fell over! It is sometimes described as the lowest form of wit. A sardonic comment is not so hurtful but it is also mocking and can sometimes be hurtful.

sceptic / septic

sceptic is someone who does not believe most of the things that s/he is told. If you cut yourself you must try to ensure that the cut does not become infected and turn septic.

sew / sow

We sew with needle and cotton. We sow seeds in a field.

some time / sometime / sometimes

The words some time mean for a little whileHe wanted to stay in Zanzibar for some time. The word sometime is often used interchangeably but really it means at an indeterminate point in the futureWhy don’t we meet up for a coffee sometime? Sometimes means occasionally or from time to time. We sometimes meet for coffee at lunch.

stationary / stationery

If you are stationary, you are not moving. Stationery consists of paper and envelopes and similar office items.

story / storey

We often read a story to children at night time. The word storey relates to the height of a building. It’s a ten-storey office block.

swap / swop

Two spellings of the same word!

swat / swot

We swat a fly when we kill it with a newspaper or something similar. When we swot we work hard for an examination.

wave / waive

Waves are found in the sea and sometimes in large lakes. We also wave to someone when we see them in the distance, perhaps at a railway station. When the bank waives a payment that you are supposed to make, it means that you will not be charged. My bank waived my bank charges after I wrote a letter of complaint.