The English Learner’s Guide to the Most Confusing Words in the Language
Slam poet and former teacher Taylor Mali says that he makes students spell definitely and beautiful over and over again, until they never misspell either one of those words again.
If you are an English learner, you have probably been confused by those words or difficult words like them.
The problem that most English learners face is the great number of confusing words in the language.
There are words that look alike and/or sound alike but have completely different meanings. There are words that are difficult to pronounce and others that you can never remember how to spell.
We have created a list of the most confusing words in English, so you can learn them and prevent these words from stopping you in your path to English fluency.
Why Are These Confusing Words Important for English Learners?
Before you can have any chance to improve your fluency, you need to work on English accuracy, or the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences.
Confusing words can make it hard to speak or write accurately—whether you are using them the wrong way or confusing them with other words. Learn a few essential confusing words and you will take a significant step toward fluency.
You will also rely less on tools such as spellcheck, which are often helpful, but can sometimes make things worse for English learners. There are some mistakes your word processor’s spellcheck feature simply will not catch. This is especially true with homophones, or words that sound the same (as we will discuss below).
For example, a spellcheck will not know that you wanted to write “nice to meet you” instead of “nice to meat you.”
Overall, mastering confusing English words will make you a more confident English speaker. If you learn them, these words will not make you freeze up when you hear them or need to use one. The more confident you become, the more fluent you will sound—and the more motivation you will have to keep practicing English.
In the video below, you’ll learn all about the difference between look, see and watch in English. These verbs are often the source of lots of confusion and can be difficult for English learners to use.
What to Do When You Encounter Confusing English Words
When you are reading, watching a movie, surfing the web or doing anything else in English, a good dictionary can help you overcome confusing words. There is no shame in taking a few seconds to look up a word—and you are more likely to remember it the next time you encounter it. If you are always on the move, try a handy dictionary app.
It can also be helpful to have a reference book on grammar and vocabulary handy. “The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage” is a classic, but you might also like “The Little, Brown Handbook” and “A Practical English Grammar.”
Your dictionary will show you how to spell, define and use a word, but you will need some extra help for pronunciation.
Pronunciation Book, for example, is a YouTube channel that offers instructional videos demonstrating the correct American pronunciation of English words. I used this channel to end a long debate on how to pronounce cthulhu (the name of a fictional character from an H. P. Lovecraft story), one of the most famously difficult words to pronounce in literature.
Visual Thesaurus is another cool tool that will help you identify and quickly memorize new or confusing English words. While a traditional thesaurus just shows you a list of related terms for any word you look up, Visual Thesaurus provides an interactive word map.
You can click through the map to see which words are similar, and which word means exactly what you want to say. You will get a full understanding of confusing words and will quickly learn how to spell, use and even say them! Visual Thesaurus comes with its own pronunciation demonstrations built right in.
The Most Confusing Words in English, and How to Learn Them
They say “misery loves company” and that applies to these confusing words as well. We can divide these words into categories depending on their spelling, their pronunciation or their difficulty so you can easily identify the problems with them and know how to solve them.
Words like meet and meat are called homophones: words that sound the same, but have different meanings. Since they sound the same, it is easy to get confused with these words and end up in very funny situations.
Homophones are pronounced the same way, but in most cases that is the only similarity between these words. Now we will review some homophone examples so you can ketchup (or should we say: catch up!).
Aloud vs. Allowed
Aloud is an adverb that means “orally; not silently.”
Allowed is the past tense of the verb allow, which means “to give permission for something.”
The student was allowed by the teacher to read his poem aloud to the class.
Right vs. Write
Right has a few meanings you are likely to encounter.
One definition of right is “correct.” If someone asks you a question, you will try to give the right answer. Right can also refer to a direction or location—it is the opposite of left. If you are facing north and you turn east, you are facing to the right.
By contrast, write means “to inscribe or compose.”
Take a pencil from the cabinet on your right. Write the essay again, and this time use the right words!
Die vs. Dye
To die means “to cease to live,” while to dye is to change the color of something using paint or chemicals.
If you dye my hair the wrong color, I will just die!
Bare vs. Bear
When something is bare, it is uncovered, unclothed or exposed.
To bear means to carry or support something. Bear as a noun refers to a wild animal (more on this later).
He could hardly bear the pain of walking with bare feet on the hot sand.
You’re vs. Your
You’re is a contraction of the words “you” and “are” that we can use in a sentence like, You’re a good friend. (You are a good friend).
By contrast, your is the possessive form of “you,” and we can use it in a sentence like, Your book is on the table. (The book that belongs to you is on the table.)
Be careful with these words—even native speakers get them mixed up sometimes!
In addition to homophones, you have to be careful with homographs—words with the same spelling, but different meanings—like these:
Just like the word right mentioned earlier, bear can be a homograph as well as a homophone!
While to bear means to carry or support, a bear is an animal you would find in the woods.
Winnie the Pooh is a small bear who cannot bear a lot of weight.
If you are a subject, you are under the authority of someone like a king.
More commonly, this word means “topic” or “the theme of a conversation/article/study/etc.” You can also study a subject, like math, science or English.
Benjamin Franklin is the subject of this biography.
The king will provide for his loyal subjects.
As a noun, an object is something that can be seen or touched. It usually refers to an inanimate (not alive) thing.
As a verb, to object is to express disapproval or opposition.
A frisbee is a small, round object the size of a dinner plate.
I have to object to the immoral business being carried out.
As a noun, a bow is a knot to join the ends of a ribbon or string.
As a verb, to bow is to bend the body or to incline the head, as to show respect or greet someone.
The girl wore a pretty bright bow in her hair.
The man bowed his head in prayer.
This is one of the few homographs on this list that has a pronunciation difference. The noun bow rhymes with the exclamation “oh” while the verb bow rhymes with “how.”
To produce, as a verb, means “to create or make something.”
As a noun, produce refers to fresh fruit or vegetables.
The new automobile factory is not ready to produce cars yet.
The farmer sells his produce from the back of his truck.
A date as a noun typically refers to a specific day on the calendar.
A date can also refer to a sweet fruit commonly found in the Middle East or Northern Africa.
As a verb, to date means “to go out with someone romantically.”
July 4 is an important date in American history.
I ate so many dates I made myself sick!
He dated a lot of people while he was in high school.
To tear, as a verb, means “to rip or pull apart something.” Tear as a noun means a “drop of water from the eye.”
The verb tear rhymes with bear, while the noun tear rhymes with here.
This fabric is bad! It tears easily.
She was crying—I found her in tears.
To lie can mean either to be in a horizontal position, or to tell something that is not true.
The book lies on the table.
He lied about his age. He said he is 30, but he is older than that.
If you are content, it means you are happy or satisfied with something.
He was content with the movie and settled back to enjoy watching.
Content as a noun usually refers to some material or information that can be found inside something else. It is often used in the plural form (contents).
Oranges have a high content of vitamin C.
The poem had a lot of words, but very little interesting content.
What are the contents of this envelope?
Words with Difficult Spelling
There are words like throughout that have a spelling so difficult that you constantly need to look it up. Is it g before h or the other way around? Make sure to double check every time.
With that combination of w-k-w, it is easy to misspell this word and put yourself into an awkward (uneasy/not elegant) situation.
Weird is, well… weird, because it breaks the “I before e except after c” rule for English spelling.
Try repeating this sentence for remembering how to spell it: “We are weird. We is the beginning of weird.”
Only one single vowel and a pair of wild hs? No wonder this word is so difficult to spell. Try to remember the similar word rhyme, which is slightly easier.
Dessert vs. Desert
It is easy to confuse dessert and desert. Try to remember that Sahara, with only one s, is a desert and not a dessert.
Especially vs. Specially
Especially is an especially common English word to misspell.
Some English learners accidentally spell it with an x (expecially or exspecially), perhaps because that is how many people pronounce it. Try this trick remembering how to spell it: especially includes the word special, which makes it easy to remember the correct word, especially.
Then throw specially into the mix, and things get even more complicated.
Especially means “particularly” or “above all.”
She loves flowers, especially roses.
On the other hand, we use specially to talk about the specific purpose of something:
This bathroom was specially designed to make it easy for a disabled person to use.
The more vocabulary you learn, the easier it will be to communicate. The more you communicate, the easier it will be to have confidence while speaking English. Just remember that learning English should be fun! If you do get one of these confusing words wrong, just laugh it off and enjoy yourself; you learn more when you are enjoying yourself.
Which of the most confusing words confuse you? Which ones do not? Do you have any good tricks for remembering how to use them correctly?
Gabriel Goyo writes about language learning and teaches modern languages but can’t help wondering if he might have chosen to be something safer, like a ninja.