THE English language is notoriously treacherous for non-native and native speakers alike. One of the most common complaints is that words which are pronounced similarly, or at times identically, often have very different meanings. The slightest difference in spelling can change completely the meaning of a word, and some words are so similar in spelling and pronunciation that native speakers still struggle to choose the correct one between two. Here we take a look at the Dirty Dozen of the more often confusing words in the English language.
Affect versus effect
Affect is one of the most searched-for words in Oxford Dictionaries online. The reason for this is the confusion between affect and effect. The basic difference is that affect is chiefly used as a verb – its meaning is ‘to influence or make a difference to’. Effect can be used as a noun or a verb, but the usage as a noun is much more common. As a noun, effect means ‘a result or an influence’.
Research shows excessive alcohol consumption can affect your health. Affect as a verb.
A shortage of housing in the city had the effect of pushing up prices. Effect as a noun.
Negotiations with the union hoped to effect a resolution. Effect as a verb.
Licence and license
A tricky one for users of British English. Licence is a noun and license is a verb. In the US however license is used as both a noun and a verb.
This bar is licensed to sell strong liquor. Licensed the verb.
Can I see your driver’s licence please? Licence the noun.
Complement and compliment
There is the slightest difference in spelling and pronunciation between these, but people often confuse them. Both have uses as nouns and verbs. Complement as a noun has two meanings: ‘a thing that completes or brings to perfection’ and ‘a number or quantity of something required to make a group complete’. And as a verb, ‘add to (something) in a way that enhances or improves it; make perfect.’
A couple of beers would complement this burger nicely. Complement as a verb.
When Mikko arrived the team had its full complement of 11 players. Complement as a noun.
That tie really complements your suit. Complement as a verb.
Compliment is generally the more commonly used of the two and its use as a verb means, ‘politely congratulate or praise (someone) for something’ and as a noun, ‘a polite expression of praise or admiration’.
Dave complimented Amanda on her cool shoes.. Compliment the verb.
Amanda didn’t know what to make of Dave’s compliment. Same word as a noun.
The easiest way to remember the difference between these two is compliment refers to praise and complement relates to something making another thing just right or complete.
Practice and practise
These two regularly catch-out native speakers and are two of the more commonly confused words in regular usage in the English language. Again this is one where users of American English manage with just plain old practice and British English speakers deal with the confusion of two similar words. So in the US you can use practice as a noun and a verb, but elsewhere practice is the noun and practise is the verb.
Aitor runs his own legal practice. Practice as a noun.
But here’s where it can get tricky:
The team needs more practice. Again as a noun.
You should practise more. This time as a verb.
Bated or baited
Ok, so this isn’t one we use every day of the week, but still ranks as the third-highest online query in Oxford Dictionaries online – so evidently a confusing one. For starters we can blame William Shakespeare - again not something we can do every day of the week. Shakespeare coined thousands of new words, phrases and idioms. He didn’t particularly pay much attention to the rules either. Shakespeare gifted us such phrases as: to be or not to be, flesh and blood, in my mind’s eye, vanish into thin air, one fell swoop and many, many more. The original line from The Merchant of Venice, which still causes so much confusion, is:
Or shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?
Bated, as the Bard uses it, is a shortening of abated, ‘to bring down, lower or depress’ – last week’s storm abated later in the week. The other baited is what you do to a mouse trap and means ‘prepare (a hook, trap, net, or fishing area) with bait to entice fish or animals as prey’ or lessen commonly ‘deliberately annoy or taunt (someone)’. Baited breath in this sense would be to try to catch a mouse by lodging a piece of smelly cheese at the back of your throat. Big difference.
Principal and principle
Principal is an adjective, sometimes incorrectly used as a noun. It means ‘primary, or most important.’
He was the principal writer of the television series. An adjective qualifying the importance of the writer.
She was the principal of the school. Used as a noun here, but it is actually an adjective, as the title is properly the principal teacher, or most important teacher.
The other principle is always a noun and means ‘a fundamental belief or rule’. To have strong principles mean to have strong beliefs or views.
The school principal was a woman of principle. Both correct.
There are dozens more of these confusing words and we’ve just hit on a few today. Let us know if there are any words which you find easy to confuse with another.