There are several thousand words in English today and one interesting thing about these words is that most of them sound alike, with similar spellings, but have different meanings. See Homonyms. Some have different spellings and meanings but sound alike. Read about Homophones while others have same spellings with different meanings and sound differently. We call words in this group Homographs. These closely related words usually cause confusion for users of English and to this end, I have put together this post, Commonly Confused Words with Definitions & Examples, to solve this challenge and shed light on such words we commonly mix up.
Commonly Confused Words with Definitions & Examples
Let us look at these words one after the other with their definitions, the Parts of Speech they belong to and their usage and examples so that we do not confuse them with other similar words anymore. Here we go…
Accompany with or Accompany by
We use these two when both refer to going to some place with somebody; but in a musical context, we use accompanied by. For example:
- The bassist was accompanied by the pianist.
When we use accompany to refer to ‘going along with something’, we can either use by or with. For instance:
- The chicken salad was accompanied by a chilly drink.
- His promise was accompanied by/with deed.
- The police accompanied their threats with action.
Adapter and Adaptor
We can be used interchangeably, but commonly, we use adapter to refer to a person who adapts, as in:
- The adapter of the stage play for television did it very well.
We use adaptor to refer to a thing that adapts, specifically a type of electrical plug.
Admission and Admittance
These two both means ‘permission’ or ‘right to enter’. Admission is the more common term, as in:
- They refused him admission to their house.
Unlike admittance, it can also mean ‘the price or fee charged for entry’, as in:
- Admission to the football game is relatively cheap.
We largely use Admittance in formal or official situations, as in:
- They ignored the notice saying “no admittance”’.
Admission also means ‘confession’ or ‘acknowledgement of responsibility’, as in:
- On her own admission, she was the thief.
Agnostic and Atheist
These words both mean ‘disbeliever in God’, but there is a difference in the sense in which both words are used. Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether God exists or not; that is, it refers to a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable. Atheists believe that there is no God. An Atheist is someone who does not believe in God nor in the existence of deities.
Aide vs Aid
These two words are homophones. Aide, as a noun, means ‘an assistant and it is the short form of ‘aide-de-camp’ pronounced /eɪd.dəˈkɑ̃ː/ which refers to a military officer serving as personal assistant to a senior. ‘Aid’ on the other hand, could be used both as a noun or a verb. As a noun, it means ‘assistance, help or support’ which could be in form of money or supplies. It also refers to a person, a device or anything that helps or assist. For instance:
- He used a teaching aid in the class.
- Crutches are aids to help someone walks well.
- The UN gives aid to several countries of the world.
- She wouldn’t have survived the recession without the aid of his bankers.
- The book is an aid to using the App for publishing.
- There should be visual aids in every classroom.
As a verb, ‘aid’ means to ‘give help or assistance to an individual, something or a cause’. For example:
- Clean water and environment aid in the fight against diseases.
- She aided her daughter in securing overseas admission.
- Good citizens must not aid and abet a crime.
All together and Altogether
These two words, despite their similarity, are not interchangeable. All together means ‘at the same time’ or ‘in the same place’, e. g.
- The guests arrived all together.
- They kept their personal papers all together in a filing cabinet.
Altogether, however, means ‘in all, in total’ or ‘completely’, as in:
- We collected ten thousand altogether.
- The work was altogether too much for him.
Amiable and Amicable
Both words are adjectives and refer to friendliness and goodwill. Amiable means ‘friendly’ or ‘agreeable and pleasant’, and is mostly used of people or their moods, as in:
- We are fortunate to have amiable neighbours.
- She had amiable travelling companions.
- He has an amiable temperament.
- I like to be in an amiable mood.
Amicable means ‘characterized by friendliness and goodwill’ and is applied mainly to relationships, agreements, documents, etc., as in:
- We have an amicable working relationship.
- They finally reached an amicable settlement at the end of the land dispute.
- The politician sent an amicable letter to his former rival.
Among and Amongst
Both are Prepositions and can use them interchangeably as in:
- We searched among/amongst the bushes for the ball.
- Divide the chocolate among/amongst you.
- You must choose among/amongst the various possibilities.
Among and between may be used interchangeably in most contexts. Formerly between was used only when referring to the relationship of two things, as in:
- Share the chocolate between you and your brother.
Among was used when referring to the relationship of three or more things, as in:
- Share the chocolate among all your friends.
In modern usage between may be used when referring to more than two things, as in:
- There is an agreement between all the countries of the EU.
- Share the chocolate between all of you.
However, among is still used to describe more than two things.
Artist and Artiste
These words are liable to be confused. Artist refers to ‘a person who paints or draws’, as in ‘Renoir was a great artist’. The word may also refer to ‘a person who is skilled in something’, as in:
- The mechanic is a real artist with an engine.
Artiste refers to ‘an entertainer, such as a singer or a dancer’, as in:
- We have a list of the artistes in the musical performances.
The word is becoming a little old-fashioned.
Beg the Question
This is often used wrongly. It means ‘to take for granted the very point that has to be proved’, as in ‘to say that God must exist because we can see all his wonderful creations in the world around us begs the question’. The statement assumes that these creation have been made by God although this has not been proved and yet this fact is being used as evidence that there is a God. Beg the question is often used wrongly to mean ‘to evade the question’, as in:
- The police tried to get him to say where he had been but he begged the question and changed the subject.
Blond and Blonde
These are both used to mean ‘a fair-headed person’, but they are not interchangeable. Blond is used to describe a man or boy, blonde is used to describe a woman or girl. They are derived from the French adjective, which changes endings according to the gender of the noun.
These both mean in one of their senses ‘to be permitted’. In this sense, can is much less formal than may and it is best restricted to informal contexts, as in:
- Can I go to the park now?
May is used in more formal contexts, as in:
- May I please have your name?
Both can and may have other meanings. Can has the meaning ‘to be able’, (ability) as in:
- He can still walk.
May has the additional meaning ‘to be likely’, (possibility) as in:
- You may well be right.
The past tense of can is could, as in:
- The children asked if they could (be permitted to) go to the park.
- She could (be unable to) not walk.
The past tense of may is might, as in:
- The child asked if he might have a piece of cake (permitted to).
- They might (be likely to) well get here tonight.
Calvary vs Cavalry
Calvary is a noun that has a religious connotation. It means a sculpture of crucifixion; that is, an open-air representation of the crucifixion of Jesus. It also refers to an experience of usually intense mental suffering. Geographically, it is a place outside ancient Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified; the variant or Hebrew of Golgotha.
Cavalry refers to an army component mounted on horseback or an army component moving in motor vehicles or helicopters and assigned to combat missions that require great mobility. It also refers to horsemen or soldiers on horseback: formerly, the part of an army made up of soldiers trained to fight on horseback. Take note of the spellings, especially the placement of letter ‘l’ and do not confuse the two words.
Cardinal and Ordinal
Cardinal and ordinal numbers refer to different aspects of numbers. Cardinal is applied to those numbers that refer to quantity or value without referring to their place in the set, as in ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘fifty’ ‘one hundred’. Ordinal is applied to numbers that refer to their order in a series, as in ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘fortieth’, and ‘hundredth’.
Catholic and catholic
These two words have different meanings. Catholic as an adjective refers to the Roman Catholic Church, as in ‘the pope is the head of the Catholic Church’, or to the universal body of Christians. As a noun, it means ‘a member of the catholic church’, as in ‘she is a catholic but he is a -protestant’. Catholic with a lower-case initial letter means ‘general, wide-ranging’, as in:
- The book contains catholic selection of essays.
It also means ‘broad-minded, liberal’, as in:
- She has a catholic attitude to the tastes of others.
Centre on and Centre around
These are often used interchangeably, as in ‘her world centres on/around her children’. Centre around is objected to by some people on the grounds that Centre is too specific to be used with something as vague as around. When it is used as a verb with place names, Centre is used with ‘at’, as in:
- Their business operation is centred at London.
Chair, Chairman, Chairperson
Chair is often used to mean ‘a person in charge of a meeting, committee, etc.’, as in:
- The committee has a new chair this year.
- She is the new chair of the panel.
- Was he nominated as the chair of the meeting?
Formerly chairman was always used in this context, as in:
- He was appointed the chairman of the fund-raising committee.
But this is disapproved of on grounds that it is sexist. Formerly, chairman was sometimes used even if the person in charge of the meeting or committee was a woman, and sometimes chairwoman was used in this situation. Chairperson, which also avoids sexism, is frequently used instead of chair. Chair is also a verb meaning to be in charge of a meeting, committee, etc.
- He chairs the board.
- Will you chair the meeting?
- She chaired the plenary session.
Client and Customer
Although closely related in meaning, these words are not interchangeable. Client refers to ‘a person who pays for the advice or services of a professional person’, as in:
- They are both clients of the same lawyer.
- A client waiting to see the bank manager.
- Most hairdressers keep their clients waiting.
Customer refers to ‘a person who purchases goods from a shop, etc.’, as in:
- Customers complained to the shopkeepers about the faulty goods.
- He was a regular customer at the local supermarket.
- She ensures maximum satisfaction for the customers in her restaurant.
Client is used in the sense of ‘customer’ by shops who regard it as a more superior word, as in:
- There are many clients of the exclusive dress boutique.
Compare with and Compare to
When you ‘compare with’, you are assessing the similarities and differences between two or more things. For instance, we can compare Pepsi with Coca-Cola. But when you compare to, you are declaring two things to be similar in some respect. For example, you can compare your Toyota Jeep to your Ford Jeep. Note that it is possible to compare two or more things with and to each/one another. For example, you can compare your niece with your sister and you can also compare your niece to your sister.
Dispatch and Despatch
The two are interchangeable. It is most common as a verb meaning ‘to send’, as in:
- The mail was despatched/dispatched as invitation
As a noun, rarely used though, it means ‘a message or report, often official’, as in:
- He receives a dispatch/despatch that the soldiers were to move on.
It also means ‘rapidity, swiftness or speed’, as in:
- He carried out the orders with dispatch/despatch.
Diagnosis and Prognosis
These two are liable to be confused. Both are used with reference to disease but they have different meanings. Diagnosis refers to ‘the identification of a disease or disorder’, as in:
- She had cancer but the doctor failed to make the correct diagnosis until it was too late.
- He could not get a correct diagnosis until he travelled abroad.
- His diagnosis was always faulty.
Prognosis refers to ‘the prediction of the likely course of a disease or disorder’, as in:
- According to the doctor’s prognosis, the patient will be dead in six months.
- Based on the prognosis, the disease will affect scores of people before cure arrives.
Disassociate and Dissociate
These two are used interchangeably, as in:
- She wished to disassociate herself from the statement.
- She wished to dissociate herself from the statement issued by her colleagues.
But dissociate is the more commonly used.
Disinterested and Uninterested
These are often used interchangeably in modern usage to mean ‘not interested, indifferent’, as in:
- The pupils are totally disinterested in learning.
- Children are uninterested in school work.
Many people dislike disinterested being used in this way and regard it as wrong use, but it is becoming increasingly common. Disinterested also means ‘impartial, unbiased’, as in:
It is better to ask a disinterested party to settle the dispute between them.
Disorient and Disorientate
They are used interchangeably. For example:
- The town had changed so much since his last visit that he was completely disoriented/disorientated.
- After the blow to her head, she was slightly disoriented/disorientated.
Each other and One another
These two used not to be used interchangeably. We use each other when only two people are involved and one another when more than two people are involved, as in:
- John and Mary really love each other.
- The twins love each other.
- The couple likes each other’s company.
- All the members of the family love one another.
- The students always cover for one another.
- They shared the goods among one another.
In modern use, this restriction is often ignored.
Empathy and Sympathy
The two are liable to be confused although they are not interchangeable. Empathy means ‘the ability to imagine and share another’s feelings, experiences, etc.’, as in:
- As a single parent herself, she has a real empathy for women bringing up children on their own.
- The writer felt a certain empathy with the subject of his biography.
Sympathy means ‘a feeling of compassion, pity or sorrow towards someone’, as in:
- She feels sympathy for homeless children.
- The organisation shows sympathy towards the widow.
- They have no sympathy for the wounded thieves.
Enquiry and Inquiry
The two words are frequently used interchangeably, as in:
- Can you make enquiries/inquiries about her health?
However, some people see a distinction between them and use enquiry for ordinary requests for information, as in:
We need to make enquiries about the times of trains.
They use inquiry only for ‘investigation’ as in:
- The police have begun a murder inquiry.
- The government launched an inquiry into the hygiene standards of the food firm.
These are similar in meaning but not identical. Evade means ‘to keep away from by cunning or deceit’, as in:
- The criminal evaded the police by getting his friend to impersonate him.
Avoid means simply ‘to keep away from’, as in:
- Women avoid that area of town at night.
Evasion and avoidance are frequently applied to the non-payment of income tax but they are not interchangeable. Tax avoidance refers to ‘the legal non-payment of tax by clever means’. Tax evasion refers to ‘the illegal means of avoiding tax by cunning and dishonest means’.
Extrovert and Introvert
Though these two words are opposites, they are liable to be confused. Extrovert refers to ‘a person who is more interested in what is going on around him/her than his/her own thoughts and feelings, such a person usually being outgoing and sociable’, as in:
- She is a real extrovert who loves to entertain the guests at parties.
Introvert refers to ‘a person who is more concerned with his/her own thoughts and feelings than with what is going around him/her, such a person usually being shy and reserved’, as in:
- She is an introvert who hates having to speak in public.
- Introverts who prefer to stay at home than go to parties.
Both extrovert and introvert can be adjectives as well as nouns, as in ‘extrovert behaviour’ and ‘introvert personality’. Note the spelling of extrovert. It was formerly spelt with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o’, that is extravert.
Fill in and Fill out
I wrote a post on the Eccentric Nature of the English language and there is this witty, paradoxical, ironic and quizzical statement which goes thus: You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which one’s house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on. You need to read that post and you will be amused.
When it comes to these words, they are both used to mean ‘to complete a form, etc. by adding the required details’, as in:
- Fill in your details.
- Fill out an application form for a passport.
In British English fill in is the more common term, although fill out is the accepted term in American English.
Grey and Gray
These are both acceptable in terms of spellings. In British English, however, grey is the more common, as in:
- There are different shades of grey.
- Her grey hair is becoming notable.
In American English, gray is the standard form.
Illegible and Unreadable
The two words are not totally interchangeable. Illegible refers to something that is impossible to make out or decipher, as in:
- His handwriting is completely illegible.
Unreadable can also mean this, as in:
- She has an unreadable handwriting.
- What he wrote was totally unreadable.
But it can also mean ‘unable to be read with understanding or enjoyment’, as in:
- His handwriting is so full of jargon that it is unreadable.
- The absence of punctuation marks makes his essay unreadable.
Impracticable and Impractical
These are liable to be confused. Impracticable means ‘impossible to put into practice, not workable’, as in:
- In theory, the plan is fine but it is impracticable in terms of costs.
- It is impracticable for lead to float.
- Travelling to Pluto by Jumbo Jet is impracticable.
Impractical means ‘not sensible or realistic’, as in:
- It is impractical to think that you will get there and back in a day.
- It is impractical for the economy to turn around in three months.
- Meeting up with the appointment with the heavy traffic is impractical.
It also means ‘not skilled at doing or making things’, as in:
- He is a brilliant academic but he is hopelessly impractical in the kitchen.
In vs To
See When to Use IN and AT for explicit discussion on this.
Indoor and Indoors
They look similar but are not interchangeable. Indoor is an adjective, as in:
- Basketball is an indoor game.
- We have an indoor match tomorrow.
- The competition will not feature indoor games.
Indoors is an adverb, as in:
- Children like playing outdoors instead of watching television indoors.
- On warm evenings, it is good to sleep instead of indoors.
- I was indoors throughout the week.
Intense and Intensive
These two are not interchangeable. Intense means ‘very strong, extreme’, as in:
- She felt an intense desire to scream.
- The cold was intense and intolerable.
- The expatriates were unable to tolerate the intense heat of Africa.
Intensive means ‘thorough’, as in:
- The police conduct an intensive search for the missing boy.
- The don is very intensive with his teachings.
- It was a very intensive examination.
It also means ‘concentrated’, as in:
- She attended an intensive course in first aid.
- There was intensive bombing during the Gulf War.
Jail and Gaol
These are both acceptable spellings although jail is the more common. They both mean ‘prison’ and can be either nouns or verbs, as in:
- He was sent to jail/gaol for drug trafficking.
- The judge jailed/gaoled him for his part in the bank robbery.
Naught and Nought
The two words are not totally interchangeable. Naught means ‘nothing’, as in:
- All his projects came to naught.
- His plans came to naught.
It is rather a formal or literary word in this sense.
Naught is also a less usual spelling of nought, which means ‘zero’ when it is regarded as a number, as in:
- The number contains two noughts.
Nevertheless and Nonetheless
These two words mean the same thing, as in:
- He has very little money; nevertheless, he gives generously to charity.
- He came from a rich family, nonetheless, he dresses shabbily.
Sometimes None the less is usually written as three words but nevertheless is spelt as one word. But in modern usage nonetheless is sometimes written as one word.
Rout and Route
Both words are liable to be confused. They look similar but they have different pronunciations and have completely different meanings’. Rout as a noun means ‘overwhelming defeat’, as in:
- The rout of the opposing army was the talk of the town.
- Crushing the rebels was a great victorious rout for the king.
As a verb, it means ‘to defeat utterly’, or ‘to delve, cut into, dig, rootle, root, etc. as in:
- Their team routed ours last time.
- They routed the fighters from their caves.
- The scavengers routed for junks in the dunghill.
- The pig was routing for truffles.
Route refers to ‘a way of getting somewhere’, as in:
- We should take the quickest route.
- The scenic route of the countryside is amazing.
Route can also be a verb meaning ‘to arrange a route for, to send by a certain route’, as in:
- They plan to route the visitors along the banks of the river.
- We routed all phones calls through his office as he demanded.
- She routed the letter to the Governor through his Personal Assistant.
We pronounce Rout to rhyme with ‘shout’, ‘tout’, etc. while we pronounce Route to rhyme with ‘brute’, ‘root’, etc.
Straight away and straightaway
These are both acceptable ways of spelling the expression for ‘without delay, at once’, other synonyms include: right away, straight off, forthwith, instantaneously, instantly, etc. Examples include:
- Attend to the matter straight away/straightaway.
- He found an answer straightaway/straightway.
- It was a straightaway/straightway denial.
What ever and Whatever
These two words seem similar, but they are not interchangeable.
We use ‘What ever’ when ‘ever’ is used for emphasis, as in:
- What ever does he think he’s doing?
- What ever is she wearing?
As a pronoun, it means emphatic ‘what’ which is used to express an emotion such as surprise or perplexity, as in:
- What ever is the matter now?
Whatever means ‘anything, regardless of what, no matter what’ and it could be a pronoun, as in:
- Feel free to say whatever you like.
- She always succeeds, whatever she does.
- Whatever he says I don’t believe him.
- Help yourself to whatever you want.
- Whatever problem you encounter will stop with time.
- Give me whatever apples you do not want.
As an adverb:
- If that is what you think, whatever. (expressing mild disagreement)
- I can see no reason whatever why you should not go. (of any kind)
It is also closely related with the word, ‘whatsover’ which as an adverb, means ‘at all’, as in:
- Did you have any doubts? None whatsoever!
The pair of words that are liable to cause confusion discussed in this post are not exhaustive. We will still discuss many more singly or collectively. Having proper knowledge of how we should use these words will go a long way to help you in the English language both in formal and informal contexts. Endeavour to check other commonly confused words that we have explained in other posts we list below:
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