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Commonly confused words

Commonly confused words in the English language

Commonly confused words in the English language can cause a lot of consternation. They either look similar, sound similar or, sometimes, look and sound similar but they have completely different meanings.

Other words look and sound very different but have similar meanings and, sometimes the difference is very subtle. If you are lucky enough to have studied Latin and Greek, it is quite easy to work out the root of the word but for those that are not so lucky we have compiled a list of commonly confused words for you.

• delusion / illusion
A delusion is a permanent and misguided impression, a belief that what is false is true (e.g. a delusion that he is the emperor Napoleon). A delusion cannot be removed by any appeal to reason. On the other hand an illusion is something that seems to exist, or seems true to the senses (e.g. the happy illusions of childhood). An illusion is usually harmless and often pleasant. In a very few contexts the words can be used interchangeably.

• dependant / dependent
This causes some confusion. Remember to use the noun dependant for a person, such as a child, who relies on another for support. Dependant always refers to a person. For the adjectival form use dependent (followed by ‘on’) meaning reliant on, or contingent on (e.g. we are dependent on good weather for our school outing). In American English independent is used in all forms of the word.

• economic / economical
I will never forget the difference because many years ago in a school essay I got this wrong. Economic is the adjectival form of economy or economics (e.g. economic recovery). Economical means using something as cheaply as possible or thrifty (e.g. it is economical to buy in bulk).

• egotist / egoist
These words are often confused although they are not interchangeable. They are derived from the Latin ego (‘I’). An egotist is an arrogant, boastful person with an excessive sense of self-importance, inclined to use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ too frequently. Egoist is much more subtle. Egoism is a doctrine in philosophy or ethics in which self-interest is the root of moral conduct. You can be an egoist without being an egotist.

• emigrate / immigrate
Emigrate (from the Latin e + migrare to migrate out) is to leave the country of your birth, and immigrate is to enter another with the intention of remaining permanently. Remember that people are emigrants from the country they leave and immigrants in the country they settle.

• envy / jealousy
These words are similar in meaning and both have different shades of meaning. Envy is the feeling of discontentment aroused when others possess the thing you desire. Jealousy is a stronger emotion and incorporates hostile feelings towards a rival you fear might take something you already have. A good example is feeling envy because your friend has a new sports car but jealousy when he takes your girlfriend for a ride.

• farther / further
These are comparatives of far, and their superlatives are farthest or furthest. Both refer to distance but you should use further when referring to time or extent (e.g. until further notice; make further enquiries). Further may also be used as a verb (e.g. to further one’s plans).

• fewer / less
Less is used when referring to mass, volume, extent or quantity (e.g. less water, less sand) and fewer when referring to numbers (e.g. fewer spectators, fewer cars). As a general rule use less with a singular noun and fewer with a plural noun.

• flagrant / blatant
Originally these words did not have the same meaning, although now they are almost synonyms. Blatant is anything that is offensive or shocking in an obviously conspicuous way. Flagrant comes from a Latin word meaning to burn. It refers to anything that is conspicuously scandalous or outrageous. It has a more forceful meaning than blatant. Examples are a blatant lie and a flagrant violation of civil liberty.

• fortunate / fortuitous
These two words do not mean the same thing. Fortuitous comes from the Latin fortuitus which means by chance. Fortunate is derived from fortunatus and means bringing some lucky or unexpected advantage, such as a tax refund. It has nothing to do with chance.

• gaff / gaffe
A gaffe is a blunder whereas gaff can have several meanings: a barbed spear, a pole with a hook, a spar or boom aboard a sailing vessel etc.

• historic / historical
Historic refers to an event noted in history, memorable, famous (e.g. a historic victory). Historical has to do with history (e.g. a historical novel).

• homonyms and homophones
Homonyms are words that are pronounced alike but have different meanings (e.g. too and two) and homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings (e.g. son and sun).

• illegal / unlawful
There is a slight and very confusing semantic difference between these two concepts, but for the most part they are synonymous. Illegal refers to something that is expressly forbidden by enacted law (e.g. it is illegal to own a gun) whereas unlawful goes against what is generally allowed and has connotations of morality (e.g. unlawful pleasures).

• impractical / impracticable
These are virtually synonymous. Impractical is an adjective describing someone who is incapable of dealing sensibly with useful things, including plans, ideas and concepts (e.g. an impractical person). Impracticable is very similar in meaning but refers to something incapable of being carried out (e.g. an impracticable scheme).

• introspective / introverted
In psychology these terms have very precise meanings but in general usage introspective concerns examining one’s own thoughts and feelings, while introverted refers to concentrating or directing one’s mind, feelings and emotions on oneself.

• licence / license
These words are pronounced in the same way but licence is the noun and license the verb. Compare advice / advise; practice / practise etc. British English, which we in South Africa follow, makes this distinction but in American English both noun and verb are spelt license.

• lie / lay
Lie, in the sense of being at rest, is far too often confused with lay. Lie is an intransitive verb (it has no object e.g. I won’t take it lying down – never laying down) and lay is transitive (it takes an object e.g. lay a carpet).

• lightning / lightening
Lightning is a flash of bright light in the sky during a thunderstorm and should be differentiated from lightening which means lessening the load to make it less heavy. The latter can be used literally and figuratively.

• loath / loth / loathe
The th in loath and loth is pronounced as in birth and the words mean disinclined, whereas loathe means feeling hatred and the pronunciation is as in clothe. There is no reason for the existence of loth so I suggest you avoid it.

Well that’s all for now with the commonly confused words and words that are often confused and misused. Do look out for the final installment in this three part series.


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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