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List of commonly confused words in English

This is the final instalment in our list of commonly confused words in English.

In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. False cognates are pairs of words in the same or different languages that are similar in form and meaning but have different roots. That is, they appear to be, or are sometimes considered, cognates, when in fact they are unrelated.

•metre / meter
Meter is a device for measuring something (as in gas meter). It is not to be confused with metre, a unit of length in the metric system and of rhythm in poetry. In American English both words are spelt meter.

•minute / minute
The only way to know if minute is a noun, a verb or an adjective is the context in which it appears in writing or in print, or in the pronunciation of the speaker if he is actually speaking. Compare the following: I’ll be there in a minute (noun). The secretary will minute what is said (verb). He examined everything in minute detail (adjective). The accent is placed on the first syllable for the noun and verb, and on the second syllable for the adjective.

•moot / mute
These words can be used as nouns, adjectives or verbs, have quite different meanings and are pronounced differently. Moot (as in ‘boot’) most frequently appears in its adjectival form, as in a moot point (i.e. a debatable point). Mute has to do with silence and is pronounced ‘myooht’.

•pitiable / pitiful
Pitiable means deserving of pity (e.g. illness had reduced him to a pitiable figure). Pitiful means showing or feeling pity. Note that pitiful is often incorrectly used to mean contemptible (e.g. his small contribution was pitiful).

•premier / premiere
These words derive from the same Latin root. Premier (noun or adjective) is first in order or time. Premiere (noun) is the first public performance of a play or film

•principal / principle
These words have several meanings but the meanings we use most often are principal, meaning chief. This is used as a noun and verb (as in principal of a school or the principal reason) Principle is only a noun (e.g. a man of principle).

•prostate / prostrate
Prostate is a word you hear more frequently when you get to my age, especially when it is coupled with the words gland or cancer. Prostrate, on the other hand, means lying face down, or prone, but is often confused with the dreaded p-word. Prostrate is also often used mistakenly when supine (lying face up) is intended.

•racist / racialist
Race relations are delicate matters and their vocabulary is correspondingly complex and shifting. The definition of both words is now identical and interchangeable although it wasn’t always so. The newer word racist indicates a slightly greater degree of contempt than racialist on the part of the user.

•referee / umpire
Umpires and referees are technically the same thing – sports officials who ensure that a particular game is played fairly and to the rules. However, different sporting codes have chosen to name these officials either an umpire (tennis, cricket, baseball, American football) or a referee (rugby, soccer, basketball and boxing). So follow convention. But remember that in some sports, such as tennis, the role of a referee has evolved to become the final arbiter of umpiring decisions.

•revue / review
Review as both a noun and a verb can be used in several contexts including military, legal and academic. To avoid confusion it is better to steer clear of the spelling review for anything to do with a theatrical performance. The only context for revue (noun) is theatrical.

•sarcasm / irony
These two nouns should not be confused with each other. Sarcasm is the use of intentionally bitter and wounding remarks made in a direct fashion. Irony can be bitter but it is indirect, and may be light-hearted. It usually says the opposite of what is really meant (e.g. saying someone is a genius when he has made a basic blunder). Usually tone of voice indicates the speaker has an ironical intention.

•sensuous / sensual
If you are a careful writer you will think before deciding which word to use. Sensual describes a person who is excessively inclined to the gratification of the senses, especially in sexual activities. Sensuous also has to do with the senses but lacks a sexual connotation

•smelled / smelt
How do we spell the past tense and the past participle of smell? I am never sure. Smelled is certainly not incorrect but smelt has now become the preferred spelling. So go with the flow.

•social / sociable
Sociable has to do with companionship (friendly, enjoying the company of others), social with the community or society (e.g. social club, social worker).

•stationary / stationery
Stationary (adjective) means not moving and stationery (noun) refers to writing materials.

•urban / urbane
The adjective urban means of a town or city (e.g. the urban population) and urbane, also an adjective, means courteous, elegant or refined.

•use / usage
These two words do not have the same meaning. Use is the act of using (e.g. it will be put to good use) and usage is the manner of using (e.g. with careful usage it will last several years). Usage refers to the way in which words are used. The Concise Dictionary of Correct English states: “What is standard practice in a language is governed by what is habitual, i.e. usage.”

•uninterested / disinterested
Disinterested (impartial) is not to be confused with uninterested (lacking interest). A judge should be interested and disinterested in what the accused says.

This list of commonly confused words in English, is not the entire list but will go a long way to helping you work out what the various words mean. Please have a look at words often confused and misused and commonly confused words to complete our list.


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



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