Commonly Confused Words

Leaning vocabulary can be very tricky, especially for words that have related meaning, the same or almost the same pronunciation, or the same roots. Based from my experience from teaching vocabulary as an ESL instructor, it is almost always difficult for a student to remember the differences of related words. They often interchange them (he tell to me, he said me, he say me to give a few examples), and explaining it to them over and over get a bit frustrating or, to some point, annoying that I snap. My bad.

So today, I thought maybe listing a few commonly confused words might be a good idea. Please note though that I cannot list them all here.


Aggravate vs Irritate

The verb aggravate means “to make worse” and, according to some style guides, should not be confused with the verb irritate, which means “to annoy.”

Ambiguous vs Ambivalent

Ambiguous means “doubtful or unclear, open to more than one interpretation.” Ambivalent “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.” <Stuff that’s hidden and murky and ambiguous is scary because you don’t know what it does (Jerry Garcia).> <Americans have always had an ambivalent attitude toward intelligence. When they feel threatened, they want a lot of it, and when they don’t, they regard the whole thing as somewhat immoral (Vernon A. Walters).>

Amoral vs Immoral

The adjective amoral means “lying outside the moral order or acting without regard for any particular code of morality.” The adjective immoral means “not moral—that is, violating traditionally held moral principles.”

Answer vs Reply

We answer a question; we reply to a statement.

Audience vs Spectator

Generally speaking, members of the audience listen and spectators watch. When one goes to a concert, he is a member of the audience; when one goes to a football game, he is a spectator (simply because the sound that the players make does no matter; it’s what they do matters).

Been vs Gone

When somebody has been to London, he or she went there but is back now. When somebody has gone to London, he or she went there and is still there.

Between vs Among

Between is used to express a relationship between two objects <between the couch and the TV> <between you and me>. Among is used for three or more objects <among all of us> <among those who I admire>.

Borrow vs Lend

When we borrow something from our friends, they lend it to us. A borrower receives, a lender gives.

Complement vs Compliment

The former means “something that fills up, completes, makes perfect” <blue complements yellow>; the latter means “an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration <telling someone their smart is a compliment>.”

Few vs Less

Few and fewer refer to people or objects that can be counted. Little and less refer to a small quantity.

Hear vs Listen

Hearing means “to perceive or apprehend by the ear”’ it is our general ability to perceive sound, no matter the attention we give to it. When we give attention to what we hear, we are listening to it already. So I might be able to hear you, but I am not listening to you.

Incredible vs Incredulous

Incredible means “unbelievable.” Incredulous means “sceptical” or “expressive of disbelief.” So one can be incredulous to something incredible.

Isolation vs Solitude vs Seclusion

Solitude, isolation, seclusion mean the state of one who is alone. Solitude may imply a condition of being apart from all human beings or of being cut off by wish or circumstances from one’s usual associates <a few quiet hours of solitude>. Isolation stresses detachment from others often involuntarily <the isolation of the village in winter>. Seclusion suggests a shutting away or keeping apart from others often connoting deliberate withdrawal from the world or retirement to a quiet life <lived in pastoral seclusion>.

Say vs Tell vs Speak vs Talk

Say means “to express in words” and is usually appended to direct and indirect speeches or in dialogues. Say, most often, is used without a personal object. If we want to use a personal object, we use the preposition to after the verb say <say it> <say it to me>. Tell means “to narrate in detail ; to give information to : inform.” This verb needs a direct object (who is told or informed) <she told me about the party>. Tell can also mean “to instruct” or to make one do something <tell the to be quiet> <she told me to cook dinner tonight>. Speak is often used for one-way communication and for exchanges in more serious or formal situations <I have to speak to my children about their laziness>. Speak is the usual word to refer to knowledge and use of languages <I can speak Korean fluently>. There is not very much difference between speak and talk. Talk is the more usual word to refer to conversational exchanges and informal communication.

See vs Look vs Watch

Seeing is our general ability to use our sense of sight. The difference between look and watch is simple. To look at something simply requires someone to lay their eyes on it; to watch something requires close observation in order to check action or change. Thus, we look at pictures, but we watch videos.

Stationary vs Stationery

The former means “not moving” <stationary model of a horse>; the latter is a set of materials for writing (paper, pen, ink) or a letter paper usually accompanied by matching envelopes.

Vain vs Vane vs Vein

The adjective vain means conceited or fruitless. The noun vane refers to a device for showing wind direction. The noun vein refers to a blood vessel, a streak, or a crack.

Weather vs Whether

The noun weather refers to the state of the atmosphere at a given time and place (hot, cold, rainy, cloudy, etc.). Whether is a conjunction used in questions involving alternatives.


It is impossible to list everything in this article, so I am giving you this link for a mire comprehensive list of commonly confused words. Hope this helps: Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words.


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