Fifty more commonly confused words

Improving your vocabulary never stops!

So you’d like fifty more commonly confused words explained? No problem! Trust me, there’s no shortage of them. Some people probably see this as an inconvenience, at best, and a real minefield for the unwary speaker. In fact, it just indicates how truly extensive the language really is.

The English language is incredibly rich and diverse, with hundreds of similar looking and similar sounding words, some of them having very similar meanings. Often, though, they’ll have just that different nuance of meaning that gives the speaker (or the writer) that extra bit of precision when he or she wants to express a particular idea in a very clear manner.

Of course, sometimes the meanings are quite different! You’ve just got to take a good look at these commonly confused words and see just what it is that is confusing for you. Often, when you take the time to check them out, they’re not so confusing after all.

The English vocabulary is a great borrower

English ‘borrows’ (okay then, steals!) from other languages shamelessly, and claims her new words as part of ‘English’, with barely a blush. It is reckoned that about thirty percent of English comes, one way or another, from French – that’s how strong the French influence is on the English language. After an invasion by the Normans, and hundreds of years of disputes and wars with our French neighbours, it’s hardly surprising that we have borrowed heavily from each other’s language (well okay, a lot more one way than the other)!

Our dictionary is bulging with the words of the world!

English owes a lot to German and Latin as well, amongst other languages, and is the richer for it. We can say something has a sweet odour (from French) or it absolutely stinks (from German). We talk of relaxing on the veranda (from Hindi), while listening to a recording of a cappella music (from Italian). We might decide to change to a new diet according to the dictates of ayurveda (from Sanskrit), or warn someone to keep an eye out for any chavs with shivs (both from Romani). Or maybe we could just settle down for a nice bagel, or make the effort and schlep around the shops for a few bargains (both from Yiddish). Later, we might enjoy a barbecue (from Spanish) on the balcony (from Persian). Yes, English is a wonderfully varied language, and we owe it all to our native inventiveness (and, er, our eagerness to avail ourselves of anything going spare)!


No matter how many words you know, your vocabulary can always be improved and extended

We have the freedom to use words that by their very derivation have an inbuilt connotation of warmth, or sweetness, or harshness, or chutzpah, or Oriental mystery, or intellectualism, or whatever. We can select from the languages of the world, which, let’s face it, are all freely available to us Brits 🙂


We can choose words that fit like a glove, not hang them on thoughts baggy and ill-fitting. It’s easy when you have the languages of the world to ‘borrow’ from!

The English dictionary is as varied as a thesaurus

Hercule Poirot

Get to grips with some of these ‘difficult’ words, and you’ll soon be as confident and and as dapper as Hercule Poirot himself!

But the thing is, when you have such a wealth of words to choose from, it’s a bit like having a huge walk-in wardrobe stuffed with a vast array of disparate outfits from which to freely make a selection. If you’re not careful, you could stumble out looking like a circus clown, yet convinced you look quite chic! You might still have that smile fixed on your face (even if it is painted on in bright red greasepaint), while confused onlookers try to work out what you’re supposed to be dressed as. Or, in verbal terms, your meanings can be completely lost, or at least wildly confused, by using ill-fitting and ill-matching words and phrases.

Jack Jacker

Anyway, here’s fifty more commonly confused words to help you dress your thoughts up more stylishly and suavely. When you’ve assimilated these into your lexicon, you’ll feel as smart and dapper as Hercule Poirot (oops, there I go again, this time ‘borrowing’ from Belgium).

Don’t panic!
You can always add a couple more words tomorrow

Oh, and by the way, please don’t feel overwhelmed by all the different (and not so different) words that you’ll find on these pages. The last thing I would want is to leave you feeling bewildered or confused. Just glance at the list and pick one or two that interest you. Spend a minute or two trying to appreciate the sometimes very subtle differences, and putting them in sentences of your own choosing so that you can really understand their discrete meanings and usages. Try them on for size! You’ll learn the words better that way. And you can always pop back in a day or two to pick another one or two interesting specimens! We’re always open for a fitting!

Here’s fifty more commonly confused words!

51 – allusion and illusion

An allusion is a reference to something, as in “although it was subtle, I was aware of his allusion to my own work on the subject”. The inference of allusion is usually gentler or more subtle than a direct reference.

An illusion is a fanciful idea, as in “no, you’ve obviously been labouring under the illusion that you have my permission, and that’s just not the case”.

52 – admission and admittance

Both these terms refer to getting in somewhere, but there’s a difference.

Admission has more than one meaning: it can be the price of getting in, or it can be the act of allowing someone to enter (and it also has an unconnected meaning – an acknowledgement of guilt, or of the truth).

Admittance, on the other hand, refers specifically to the act of entering. So, you might be granted admission to an institution some months in advance, whereas the actual admittance doesn’t take place until the start of the academic year.

53 – adopted and adoptive

A person who was adopted by a couple is an adopted child. The child’s ‘new’ parents are known as his or her adoptive parents.

54 – adverse and averse

Two very similar looking (and sounding) words, but with very different meanings.

Adverse means unfavourable, detrimental, or hostile, as in “once we entered the heavily wooded area, we noticed that the conditions had become decidedly adverse”, or “exhaustive tests concluded that the chemical additive has no adverse effects”.

Averse means reluctant, hostile or disinclined, as in “if you’re averse to the painful truth, best stop listening right now”, or “let’s face it, some people are just averse to hard work”.

55 – amiable and amicable

People can be amiable, which just means friendly (think of ‘ami’, friend), as in “he seemed like quite an amiable chap once you spoke to him, even though his heavy build and stern expression would tend to indicate otherwise”.

Things, rather than people, are described as amicable, and the meaning again is along the lines of friendly or easy-going, as in “when the time came to split up, at least the parting was amicable”.

56 – amount and number

Another two that get mixed up all the time, but it’s easy to work out which one to use.

First, an example of each: “There was quite a number of people in the town square when the fighting broke out”, and “the guerillas came across a cache of a large amount of ammunition in the ditch”.

Use ‘number’ when the things could be counted (as in the example, ‘people’), and use ‘amount’ when the things in question are not so easily recognisable as individual items. So the people are obviously individuals (hence ‘number of people’), while the ammunition, although comprised of individual rounds, is being referred to by the noun, ‘ammunition’, hence ‘large amount of ammunition’.

Incidentally, if you still find it a bit confusing, think of it this way: if you can visualise it all being piled up into a mound, use the term ‘amount’.

57 – assent and ascent

They sound the same, but have very different meanings.

To give your assent is to agree to something, or to allow it. The opposite is dissent, to disallow or refuse to give permission or agreement.

Ascent, on the other hand, is quite different. An ascent is a raising up to a higher level, as in “on the fifth day, we started on the ascent proper – we had reached basecamp”. The opposite of ascent is descent (not to be confused with decent).

If you have any confusion, just remember that the ‘c’ in ‘ascent’ tells you it’s to do with climbing.

58 – bated and baited

Two words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings.

Bated comes from abated, and means stopped short, as in “we all waited to hear the final results with bated breath”.

Baited comes from bait, and means the material used to trap or entice something or someone, as in “once he was wearing the wire, the trap had been baited”.

59 – birth and berth

Birth refers to the process of being born, whereas a berth is a term relating to sleeping quarters on, for example, a ship. It can also refer to the place a ship comes to rest, as in “The steamer gently slid into its berth next to the quayside.”

60 – born and borne

Born is just a word related to birth, as in “I was born in the eight year of King John’s reign”.

Just by adding an ‘e’ at the end we have a different meaning altogether. Borne means something is being endured, or prolonged, or sustained. An example would be, “all those hardships were borne because I could always see the light at the end of the tunnel”.

Borne is seen more often nowadays in combination words and phrases, such as water borne and airborne (as in the spread of viruses).

61 – breathe and breath

To breathe is to inhale and exhale.

The stuff you breathe in and out is your breath.

62 – cite and site (and sight)

To cite something is to quote it, or refer to it, often for the purpose of supporting your argument.

A site just refers to a place, as in “this seems a strange site to erect a tent, let alone an abbey”.

Sight, of course, just refers to the sense of vision.

63 – climactic and climatic

These two words look very similar, but have quite different meanings. Climactic refers to a climax, as in “the music built up to a climactic finish, with the entire audience on its feet, as one”.

Climatic refers to the climate, as in “recent unusual weather events, due to el niño, highlight the climatic differences we’re seeing more and more of these days”.

64 – complacent and complaisant

Two words that come from the same root word, but have very different meanings.

Complaisant means to being eager to please, or having a cheerful willingness to comply. Think of that word, ‘comply’, if you come across compliasant – it means compliant.

Complacent is quite different. It means being smug and self-satisfied, overly pleased with yourself.

65 – concave and convex

These two words have very specific meanings but are often confused. One means to bulge outwards (as in a section of addled plaster, or a lens), while one means to bulge inwards (as in the hollow cheeks of a witch, or the walls of a cave), It’s easy to remember which is which – concave refers to something that has, in effect, been hollowed out like a cave.

66 – concurrent and consecutive

If a sentence is for two terms of ten years each, to run concurrently (i.e. at the same time), then the total time to be served is ten years.

Should the judge state that the two terms are to run consecutively (i.e. one after the other), then the total will be twenty years.

67 – defuse and diffuse

To defuse something is to render it harmless, as in defusing a bomb (literally, to remove the fuse). It can also be used figuratively, as in “a few carefully chosen words at just the right time can usually defuse a potentially violent situation”.

Diffuse is something quite different. It means to spread out, as in “although a large company, it’s not solely concerned with telecommunications. It has many and diffuse interests”.

68 – dependant and dependent

Two words that are almost identical, but once again there is a difference (in British English, at least).
A dependant is a person for whom you are responsible, as in “Please enter the names of any dependants below”.

Dependent means relying upon, as in “we should make the rendezvous by Thursday, although that’s dependent on the trains”.

69 – disparate and desparate

Disparate is a word that simply describes something as distinct, unlike something else.

Desperate is another thing entirely, and quite unconnected. If someone, or a situation, is desperate, it is practically beyond hope and in the extremes of despair (desperate and despair come from the same root word).

70 – dual and duel

The sound is the same and the spelling is almost identical, but …

dual means consisting of two parts, as in “it’s a dual external hard drive, each one of a terabyte capacity”, while a duel is a (usually staged) contest between two people, as in “they turned up before dawn for the duel, each one with his pistol and a second to assist him”.

71 – economic and economical

Very similar words, but with a difference.

Economic just refers to the economy, as in “the first quarter saw an unexpected economic upturn”.

Economical, on the other hand has no direct connection to the economy and can be a figurative term, as in “he didn’t tell her a downright lie, but let’s just say he was economical with the truth”. Economical, therefore, means careful, not wasteful. It can be used as above (‘economical with the truth’), or meaning not wasteful of resources, as in “the newly refurbished engine was definitely more economical than before”.

72 – empathy and sympathy

When you feel sympathy for someone, you commiserate with them and appreciate what they are going through. You don’t necessarily ‘feel their pain’, as such.

When you feel empathy for someone, you ‘put yourself in their shoes’ and, in effect, go through what they’re going through.

73 – endemic and epidemic (and pandemic)

If a disease in widespread in a particular region or age group, or some such subset, then it is correctly described as being endemic.

If and when the disease spreads and affect an entire community or country, then it becomes an epidemic.

If it then travels even wider (perhaps affecting an entire country, or even the whole world, then it is correct to use the all-inclusive term, pandemic.

74 – ensure and insure

To ensure something is to make sure it happens, as in “I got there early to ensure things went well”.

To insure is to take out insurance (either literally or figuratively) so that, if the worst comes to the worst, you’ve got things covered.

Just to confuse the issue, in American English the two words are more or less interchangeable, so you can take your pick.

Oh, and there’s something else too … you can also ‘assure’ something, i.e. make sure it happens, so that’s another synonym you can use (although it’s not used in quite the same way – you can be assured that something will happen, but you can’t just assure that something will happen).

Confused? I hope not!

75 – ferocity and veracity

Not sure if these actually get confused, but I imagine they probably do, from time to time, since there is a definite similarity in the sound.

Ferocity is just the state of being ferocious, whereas veracity is truthfulness.

76 – fewer and less

These two words get confused all the time, and I have to admit I find it really annoying. 🙁 I shouldn’t, because it’s only a minor thing and of no real importance, but it’s just one of those things. The difference is very obvious to me, but apparently not to most people. I guess I’ll just have to live with it! 🙁

If you’re talking about individual things (like bricks, or eggs, or cars, etc), then it’s correct to say something like “I notice there are fewer cars on the road at this time of night”. Think of those items as ‘a few’.

If what you’re taking about is stuff, rather than things (like sand, or sugar, or bread), then it’s better to use the other word, less. An example of using ‘less’ properly would be “I’ve been eating less bread since I’ve been on a diet”. Note, though, that if you were talking about bread in a different way, you might be better using ‘fewer’, as in “since the dieting began, we’ve been going through fewer loaves per week”.

Like I said, the difference isn’t really important, but why not use the correct word? 🙂 See, I’m happy again … it doesn’t really take much to make me smile!

77 – freeze and frieze

To freeze is to reduce to the point where (if it’s water) it turns to ice.

A frieze is a broad, ornamental border on a wall.

78 – historic and historical

Historic generally refers to something important in history (or even in the recent past), as in “… and we were all aware that when the meeting ended, a historic decision had been reached “.

Historical, on the other hand, generally refers to things from the past, as in “… it didn’t just look like an ancient spear, it was actually a historical artifact”.

79 – i.e. and e.g.

These two abbreviations are often used incorrectly, simply because their meanings are not clearly understood.

The abbreviation i.e. is short for id est, which is Latin for ‘that is’. It should be used when you want to expand on an idea, explaining it further, or emphasising the meaning, as in “we were about forty-five percent of the way into the caves, i.e. nearly half way, when we first saw evidence of those who had gone before, all those years ago”. All you have to do is mentally substitute ‘that is’ for i.e. when you’re planning to use it, and if it sounds right, then it is.

The other very commonly used Latin abbreviation, e.g., stands for exempli gratia, which means ‘as an example’ (literally ‘for the sake of an example’), as in “The Centre provides all manner of new-age therapies, e.g. reiki, acupuncture, moxibustion, etc”.

80 – infect and infest

These two words could easily be confused since they have somewhat similar meanings.

A person can get infected, whether by a disease, a virus, or whatever, whereas a place can get infested, by vermin, or insects, or something similar.

81 – impinge and infringe

To impinge is to encroach upon, to veer across generally accepted boundaries. An example of this would be “he sat really close to me and looked over my shoulder: I immediately felt that he was impinging on my privacy”.

To infringe is quite similar, but there is a difference. It means to violate or to break. An example would be “as I saw the speedo go well over 100, I realised that I had already infringed the law”.

82 – ingenious and ingenuous

Ingenious has a similar meaning to genius, which it looks/sounds like (although note the different spelling). An ingenious plan is one marked by cleverness and cunning.

Ingenuous is nothing to do with cleverness and cunning. It means frank and open in attitudes, almost naive, and, yes, even lacking in cunning (so maybe there is a link after all)!

83 – judicial and judicious

The word judicial refers specifically to the law courts, or the legal world in general.

Judicious, on the other hand, does not have quite the same connotation – it refers to a person’s sound and carefully considered judgement. So both words are concerned with judgement, but still, there’s a difference.

84 – lightening and lightning (and lighting)

To lighten something is to make it lighter, as in lightening your hair by adding a touch of blonde.

Lightning is an electrical discharge in the atmosphere, that hair-raising, crackling stuff that lights up the sky and gives everything a dramatic look. It’s so fast that there isn’t even time to put an ‘e’ in the middle of it!

Lighting, of course, is what makes a dull picture more interesting (adjusting the lighting), or it can be the art of adding carefully chosen and cleverly positioned lights to a room to create a certain atmosphere.

85 – loathe and loath

To loathe is to hate, as in “I loathe exercise, it makes me sweaty and breathless … there are better ways to get that way!”

Loath means unwilling or reluctant, as in “She was loath to give her bank details, having just read about the latest online scam”.

86 – loose and lose

Different meanings, although the words look very similar. If a thing hasn’t been tightened enough (e.g. a nut), it is said to be loose. Similarly, if your shoes don’t fit very well, it’s probably because they’re a bit loose.

There’s an old meaning of loose, referring to a woman, meaning of questionable morals, as in “she’s no good, that one, nothing more than a loose woman”.

The verb, ‘to lose’, had nothing to do with being loose. It just means to stop having a certain thing, as in “I think I’ve lost my way”, or “I’ve lost my appetite”.

87 – lustful and lusty

Lustful shouldn’t be confused with lusty – their meanings are quite different.

Lustful simply means filled with sexual desire, whereas if someone has a lusty approach to life, they are brimming over with energy and vigour.

88 – manifest and manifesto

If something is manifest, it is very obvious, as in “the committee’s manifest inability to make a reasonable decision”. The word can be used as a verb too, as in “even after careful training, the dog would occasionally manifest signs of its wild origins”.

Another use of manifest is as a noun, with the meaning of a careful tally of, for example, a ship’s crew, cargo and passengers (“There was no mention of champagne on the ship’s manifest”).

A manifesto, on the other hand, is a publicly stated declaration of (for example) a political party’s intentions.

89 – masterly and masterful

These two words obviously come from the same root word, master. In masterly, there is more a connotation of achievement, as of a person with special skills, i.e. a master craftsman, or the like. Masterful has more the connotation of authority.

So an example of masterly would be “his masterly use of the baton made him both a great conductor and a great showman”.

An example of masterful would be “she was drawn to him like a magnet, his masterful ways beguiling her and making her weak at the knees”.

The difference is rather slim though, and the words are often nowadays used more or less interchangeably.

90 – material and materiel

Material is the fabric of which something is made, and is what it usually meant when someone uses the word. If someone refers to materiel, he’s referring to supplies and stores. weaponry and so on, in a military sense.

91 – migrant and immigrant (and emigrant)

A migrant moves from one place to another (often, one country to another). If the term ’emigrant’ is used, it refers to someone moving from this country (whichever that may be) to another. An immigrant, on the other hand, is someone who has entered this country from another.

92 – pane and pain

The word ‘pane’ refers to a panel, as in “the window consisted of three panes of glass”.

Pain, on the other hand, refers to an unpleasant feeling, perhaps caused by an injury or an accident (such as slipping and breaking your fall by putting your hand through a glass pane)!

93 – patients and patience

A doctor’s waiting room is often filled with patients, eager for his attention.

If they have to wait a long time, it calls for patience on their part.

94 – periodic and periodical

If something is described as periodic it happens periodically, i.e. intermittently, or at regular intervals, as in “the ‘cosmic visitor’ was eventually established to be a comet, and as such can be expected to be seen periodically, on a regular basis”.

A periodical, on the other hand, is a publication that is issued periodically, e.g. daily, monthly, or annually.

95 – persecute and prosecute

Another two words that are often confused because they look and sound so similar.

To persecute is to tease, or bully, or in some way make life tough for someone, very often for very little reason. In children it can be for some imagined difference as easily as any real difference. In adults (who are no less guilty of it) it can be on religious grounds, or grounds of race, or colour, or gender, or any perceived difference.

To prosecute is another thing altogether – it means to bring the weight of the law to bear on someone, as in “Trespassers will be prosecuted”.

96 – pincer and pincher

A pincer can be such things as a lobster’s claws, a grasping tool (with jaws), or a military manoevre (attacking from distinct flanks, like claws closing on the enemy).

A pincher, on the other hand, is someone or something that pinches. It could be a bottom-pincher, a penny-pincher, or something along those lines.

97 – prophesy and prophecy

To prophesy is to make a prediction about something, to predict a future event.

The declaration you make is a prophecy.

This is one of several words that has two forms, one for the noun and one for the verb. Similar words include practise and practice, advise and advice, and devise and device. The noun form has a ‘c’ in the word, the verb form has an ‘s’. This holds true for British English, but not necessarily for English as spoken elsewhere.

98 – stationary and stationery

If something is stationary it is not moving (or has stopped moving), as in a stationary vehicle. The ‘a’ in stationary matches the a’s in car park.

Stationery, on the other hand, is all the writing paraphernalia, including paper, pens, ruler, eraser, notebooks, etc. The ‘e’ in stationery matches the e’s in paper and notebook.

99 – transparent and translucent (and opaque)

These words tell whether something allows light through. A transparent object allows light to pass through (like a pane of glass), while a translucent one allows only some light through (like a bathroom window). An opaque object doesn’t allow light through.

100 – who and whom

The mix up between who and whom seems to cause endless confusion. Of all the commonly confused words, these must be up there with the most confused!

Before we get into it, here’s the failsafe position: if you’re not sure which to use, stick with ‘who’. Whom is a fairly archaic term and is becoming less and less important as time goes on anyway, so you can settle for just not using it and it’ll still be okay. Use it, without being sure it’s right, and you could end up sounding … well, just plain wrong.

Now for the details. The way to think of ‘whom’ is to consider it paired up with ‘him’. If you look back on a sentence where you used whom, would it be possible to replace it with ‘him’? To explain further, here’s two sentences, only one of which is correct.

    Brendan was with whom?

Jacqui was a bit of a loner, whom actually lived out in the wilds.

In the first sentence, imagine you changed it to Brendan was with him? It still works. That sentence is fine.

In the second, imagine changing it to ‘… bit of a loner, him (or her, in this case) actually lived …”. That one definitely sounds wrong. The imagined alternative should read ‘… bit of a loner, he (or she, in this case) actually lived …”. To make that sentence right, use who.

Remember, if you’re confused by it, just settle for ‘who’ and forget about ‘whom’.


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