Learning a new language is always a challenge; however, one of the most challenging things about English is that there are so many words that sound similar, but have different meanings. Even advanced English students get puzzled with some words. But don’t feel intimidated! Below are explanations and definitions for commonly confused words. If you are using English for business, presentations, publications etc, you would surely know how confusing some of these words are 🙂
Than vs. Then
These two words are notorious for being mixed up. The word “than” is used to compare two or more items. “I like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla.”
On the other hand, “then” is a transition word. It shows the passage of time. “I worked on my homework and then I got ready for bed.”
Aloud vs. Allowed
When you are speaking audibly or orally, you are speaking aloud. “The boy read his report aloud to the class.”
“Aloud” is an adverb, whereas “allowed” is a verb that means to give permission. “My dad allowed me to go to the movies with my friends.”
Effect vs. Affect
This is a mistake that even the most advanced English students make. These words are confusing because they are related, yet different. “Affect” is a verb; it means to influence someone or something. “Global warming affects (influences) the weather.”
However, “effect” is a noun, and it means the result of something. “The effect (outcome) of global warming is higher temperatures.”
Principal vs. Principle
Do you remember the person in charge of your elementary school? They were called a principal, or the person of the highest rank. This word can refer to other fields as well, such a as principal researcher.
The other word “principle” means a moral belief or rule. “It is my principle (belief) to never steal.”
Stationary vs. Stationery
“Stationary” means to be standing still, or unmoving. “The train sat stationary on the tracks.”
The other kind of “stationery” is decorative paper used for writing letters. “They wrote the wedding invitation on beautiful stationery.”
Lie Down vs. Lay Down
These words may be two of the trickiest words in English, even for advanced English students. To “lie down” is when someone “assumes a resting position.” For example, “He decided to lie down on the bed.” One trick to remember this is that “lie” can be replaced with “recline.” “He decided to recline (lie down) on the bed.”
This is where things get a little confusing. “Lay down” is slightly different and means to “put or place down.” An example would be: “The mother lay down the baby in its bed for a nap.” One way to remember when to use “lay” is that it can always be replaced with “put.” “The mother put (lay down) the baby in its bed for a nap.” Another way to remember the difference is that you need an item or object that is being placed to use the word “lay.”
Compliment vs. Complement
When you compliment someone, you are giving them your praise. “The manager complimented my hard work today.” It can also be used a noun. “The manager gave me a compliment about my hard work today.”
“Complement” means to help complete something, add to it, or make it perfect. “The white purse complemented her black outfit.”
If you are using English for business, this is a word you MUST know how to use correctly!
Less vs. Fewer
Have you ever gone to a super market and seen a sign that says “15 items or less”? This is not grammatically correct. Instead, it should be “15 items or fewer” because “fewer” is defined as “a smaller number” and only refers to physical things or nouns. “There were fewer students (noun) in school yesterday.”
“Less” means to “a smaller extent” and is usually used with adjectives. “My teacher was less strict (adjective) than usual.” It can also be used to compare things. “I will be there in less than (comparison) an hour.”
Accept vs. Except
“Accept” is a verb that means to “consent to receive something.” This definition may seem confusing, even if you are an advanced English students, so here are some examples. “My teacher wouldn’t accept my late assignment” or “My mom accepted my apology.”
On the other hand, “except” is a preposition that means “other than” or it can also mean to exclude something. “I am allergic to all kinds of nuts except for (other than/excluding) almonds.”
Aisle vs. Isle
An “aisle” is a passage between rows of seats (such as aisles in a movie theater) or between rows of shelves (such as aisles in a grocery store).
“Isle” is another word for island. “The pirates landed on a small isle.” Luckily, this isn’t a very common word, so you won’t run across it much, even if you are an advanced English student.
Break Vs. Brake
If someone says “Let’s take a break”, they are referring to a time of rest and relaxation from an activity.
In contrast, if a friend says “Use the brakes!” they are referring to a device that is used to stop a vehicle, such as a car or a bike.
Ensure vs. Insure
Although these two words are pronounced similarly, they have different meanings. “Ensure” means to make something certain. “The doctor ensured me that my health was good.”
To “insure” is when you arrange for compensation for some kind of damage. In most cases, this when people buy insurance. That way if something happens to their property, the insurance company will help them pay the damages. “I decided to insure my house because my town has frequent floods.”
Desert vs. Dessert
There is only a one-letter difference in these two words, but it makes a huge difference! “Desert” (one “s”) means a dry place, usually full of sand and with few plants. “The Sahara Desert is extremely hot.”
But if you add another “s” you get the word “dessert” which has a completely different meaning. This word is referring to sweet treats, such as cookies or cake, that are served after a meal. “We had ice for dessert after dinner.”
Farther Vs. Further
Even advanced English students regularly get puzzled by these two words. The first one “farther” is referring to a physical distance. “How much farther until we get to Grandma’s house?” “Further” is used for metaphorical distances that can’t be measured. “Young man, if you annoy me any further, you will be grounded.”
However, when you are talking about a physical distance, many people use them interchangeably, meaning it doesn’t matter which one you use.
Dinner Vs. Diner
“Dinner” is referring to the main meal of the day, which usually takes place in the evening. “My family usually has dinner around 6 PM.”
The word “diner” has two definitions. In North American, a diner is a physical restaurant that is usually set up with booths and counters. “We ate at the local diner last night.” It can also mean a customer eating at any restaurant. “The diners (customers) enjoyed the food.”
Beside vs. Besides
If you are using English for business, this is another word that you will be using a lot:
“Beside” (with no “s” at the end) is a preposition word that means “next to.” An example would be: “I sat beside (next to) my best friend at the party.”
“Besides” (with an “s” at the end) is also a preposition and can be used as an adverb. However, its definition means “in addition to” or “apart from.” For example, “I really like all of the shirts besides (apart from/other than) the blue one.”
If you are using English for business whether it is as emails, presentations or research publications, you would have come across these words before. Chances are these might have tricked you a few times in the past! If you get confused by these words, don’t get discouraged. Advanced English students and native speakers get mixed up with them too sometimes. Once you have learned their definitions, you should practice using them with a tutor or partner. If you don’t have one, visit Spoken English Practice and find one today.
Learning English for business? Read our blog post on sports idioms used in the American workplace
Category: English for business