15+ Similar Words in English and How to Tell Them Apart

Are there any twins in your family?

Do you have friends who are identical twins?

Or maybe you’re even a twin yourself!

Twins are two siblings who are born at the same time.

They may look almost exactly alike, but their personalities can still be completely different.

I guess that must be how their parents and friends tell them apart.

Then there are twins who don’t look like each other but share similar personalities and tastes.

Interesting, isn’t it?

What’s more interesting is that even in the English language, some words have twins.

Synonyms, for example, are words with very close meanings but slightly different functions or usages. So instead of simply saying the pizza you had last night was delicious, you could use synonyms like tasty, yummy or even mouthwatering to spice things up.

Besides synonyms, there are also words with the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings (homonyms), words that sound the same but are spelled and used differently (homophones) and words that share the same spelling but have different pronunciations and meanings (homographs).

With all these similar words bouncing around, things can get pretty confusing!

The question is, how can you learn to tell these similar words apart and use them correctly in any context?

Let’s find out.

Which Is Which? Quick Tips to Tell Similar English Words Apart

Make it a habit to use the dictionary and thesaurus.

In language learning, the dictionary and thesaurus are your best friends. Whenever you’re unsure of a word’s meaning, look it up in an English-language dictionary.

Remember, one word can have many different meanings and usages. A quality dictionary or dictionary app will list them all with examples for context. A thesaurus (which lists synonyms for any word) will also help you identify words with similar meanings.

Better yet, check out Visual Thesaurus, which creates interactive word maps to help you learn and distinguish similar English words.

The farther away two words are on the map, the more different they are. This visual element makes words and their synonyms much more memorable. You can even search and display similar words in multiple languages!

Create your own clues about the word.

Similar English words can often be very confusing, but you can create clues and images in your mind to help you remember which word is which.

Create an image of something familiar (a person, thing or event, whatever works!) and relate it to the word. Then when you see the word again, that clue will automatically pop up in your mind and you’ll easily recall the difference.

In our list of similar English words below, we’ll give you examples of this type of clue.

Use flashcards to learn and test yourself.

There are lots of ways you can use flashcards as memory aids, too. Write the word on one side of the flashcard and its meaning on the other side and use it to test yourself.

Flashcards are easy to carry around with you so you can review them whenever you have free time. Better yet, you can even create and study with flashcards online. To get started, check out these 10 helpful English flashcard apps you can download right now.

Focus on learning new words in context.

If you just memorize English words and their definitions things will get confusing fast.

For example, here are the dictionary definitions for the similar words rob and steal (which we’ll cover in depth later in this post):

Rob: “to take personal property from [someone] by violence or threat”

Steal: “to take the property of another wrongfully”

Okay… those definitions look practically identical! To learn how native English speakers use those words, you’d near to hear them in real sentences and situations (but hopefully not when someone actually robs you).

English Words That Look and Sound Similar: Can You Tell the Difference?

Words that look and sound similar can be very confusing, don’t you agree? But don’t worry! Once you understand their differences and with lots of practice, you’ll soon build up the confidence to use them.

For some of the words below, I’ve included my clues to help you remember which word is which. As for the others, here’s a challenge for you—create your own clues!

Words with Similar Spellings/Pronunciations but Different Meanings

1. Coarse/Course

Coarse: (adjective) texture that feels rough, not smooth

Is the texture of the jacket you’re wearing smooth or coarse?

Course: (noun) a series of classes you take to learn about a certain subject

Tip to tell them apart:

Think of the letter “u” as in a course “you” are taking.

Are you currently taking a course to improve your English?

2. Race/Raise

Race: (verb) compete in a contest of speed, like running or cycling

My neighbor’s children love to race each other home from school.

This word can also be used as a noun to refer to a contest of speed.

Which runner won the race this afternoon?

Raise: (verb) lift up something like your hand or a flag

Tip to tell them apart:

Picture the letter “i” here as someone raising their hand.

If you want some ice cream, raise your hand now before I finish the whole tub!

3. Bear/Bare

Bear: (verb) produce results or fruit

I hope this tree will bear more apples next year.

Bare: (verb) expose or show

When I opened the door, his dog ran up and started to bare its teeth at me.

4. Desert/Dessert

Desert: (noun) a hot, dry land with little rain and few plants or people (for example, the Sahara)

If you had to go to the desert for three days, how much water would you bring?

Dessert: (noun) a sweet dish served at the end of a meal (for example, cake or ice cream)

Maybe we should have chocolate ice cream for dessert.

Tip to tell them apart:

Think of the two s’s as an abbreviation (short form) for sweet serving.

5. Break/Brake

Break: (verb) separate something into pieces or cause it to stop working—usually after dropping or misusing it

Please don’t break those expensive Italian vases.

Brake: (verb) slow down or come to a stop

You should brake your car when you see someone crossing the street.

6. Price/Prize

Price: (noun) the money you pay for something

I didn’t buy it because the price was too high.

Prize: (noun) something offered to winners of a contest or competition

If you want to win the first prize, you must practice harder.

7. Lose/Loose

Lose: (verb) suffer a loss or fail to keep something in your possession

Please don’t lose these keys or you won’t be able to get into the apartment.

Loose: (adjective) not tightly fitted

She’s much thinner now and her clothes have become far too loose for her.

Tip to tell them apart:

People often use the word lose when they mean loose, especially when writing. To use the right word, think of the two o’s in loose as representing extra space—meaning it’s not tight but baggy.

8. Plain/Plane/Plan

Plain: (adjective) ordinary, not decorated

This dress is too plain. I prefer something with a floral print.

Plane: (noun) short for airplane

How long will the journey take by plane?

Plan: (noun) a detailed program of action

My plan is to stay longer in places that are less often visited by tourists.


Words with Similar Meanings

9. Cut/Chop

Cut: (verb) divide something into pieces with a knife or scissors

Let’s not cut the cake until everyone gets here.

Chop: (verb) cut into many small pieces with repeated strokes of a knife

You have to chop the garlic finely before you add it to the pan.

10. Rob/Steal

Rob: (verb) take something away from someone by force

Someone tried to rob him while he was walking home late last night.

Steal: (verb) take something away illegally or without permission

If I accidentally leave my phone in the park, will someone steal it?

Tip to tell them apart:

As noted earlier, these words’ definitions are very similar. However, English speakers do use them differently.

Rob typically refers to a single incident, often a violent one. For example, if someone surprised you on the street, pointed a weapon at you and demanded your wallet, they would be robbing you.

Steal, by contrast, often refers to theft that’s unseen and sometimes prolonged. If a coworker secretly took money out of your wallet every time you went to the bathroom, they would be stealing from you.

However, note that a native English speaker won’t be confused if you use these words interchangeably.

11. Lend/Borrow

Lend: (verb) give someone temporary use of something on the condition that it’s returned later

You left your wallet at home? That’s okay, I can lend you some money.

Borrow: (verb) receive or ask for temporary use of something on the condition that it’s returned later

I have a history test tomorrow. Could I borrow your book to study?

12. Hear/Listen

Hear: (verb) become aware of a sound

Did you hear the doorbell ring?

Listen: (verb) pay attention or be alert to a sound

I like to listen to music while I’m driving.

Tip to tell them apart:

Both of these words have to do with the concept of hearing. The difference is in the intent.

When you listen, there’s intent. For example, at a concert, you listen to the music—you’re focusing on the melody and enjoying every note.

But to hear something, you don’t have to be consciously paying attention. When someone shouts your name from across the street, you would hear it, even if you weren’t listening for it.

13. Ice/Snow

Ice: (noun) frozen water

It was so cold last night that my car’s windows were covered in a layer of ice this morning.

Snow: (noun) small white frozen drops of water that fall from the sky

The weatherman says that light snow is expected today.

Tip to tell them apart:

Snow is soft.

Ice is hard and clear. Ice can coat a surface or it can be in a cube, like ice cubes in your drink.

14. Amount/Number

Amount: (noun) the total number or quantity, used for uncountable items

You must use this amount of baking powder for the cake to rise.

Number: (noun) the total sum of units, used for countable items

The number of tickets sold this year has increased by 20 percent.

Tip to tell them apart:

Many people say the amount of when they mean the number of. Remember that you can count numbers, so the number of should be used for countable items.

15. See/Watch/Look

See: (verb) detect by eye or sight

Did you see him throw the ball at the window?

Watch: (verb) observe attentively

We’re all set to watch the football game on TV tonight.

Look: (verb) cast your eye on

Please look at this picture before you start drawing.

Tip to tell them apart:

All three of these words have to do with the concept of sight, but the difference is in the intent.

Often, you see something without actually intending to. You could be walking your dog and happen to see someone throwing a ball that hits the window.

When you watch TV or a football game, you’re doing it with an intent to purposefully see what happens on the TV show or who wins the game.

When you look, you’re paying attention to what you’re seeing. So again, there’s a purpose here. However, looking is generally quick and focused on a static object, while watching takes place over a period of time. That’s why we watch movies but look at pictures.


So there we have it: words that look similar and can be very confusing. I hope their differences are clearer to you now and you’ll be more confident in choosing the right word to use. You can always print out a copy of this article and refer to it when in doubt. Happy learning!

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