English is a funny language. There exists such a vast repository of vocabulary and plethora of nuances that it is common to see not only a tyro committing grammar gaffes but also seasoned experts making silly errors. One particular area where autocorrect or electronic spellcheckers fail is when similar sounding words, called homophones, are incorrectly used, with the eventual results taking on an entirely different meaning altogether. To avoid such faux pas and become a smarter student of the language, here is a lowdown of some of the most commonly confused words in English:
1. Bemused and Amused- These two words are often confused, with the former usually being considered as a synonym for the latter. Let’s get this clear-
Amused means to be entertained, to be pleasantly occupied or being made to laugh
Example- Mayank was amused by the antics of the clown.
On the other hand, bemused means to be perplexed, or find something confusing or puzzling. Example- The complex plot of the movie bemused me.
2. Your and You’re- This error is so widespread that Grammar Nazis consider it to be the typical example of a common grammatical mistake. The difference between the two is quite simple indeed. Consider the following sentence- ‘ Your doing this project incorrectly’ Here, your, which is a possessive adjective, is incorrectly used in place of you’re. There is a simple thumb rule for this- You’re expands to you are. So if the sentence makes sense while using you’re, then you know that it is correct.
Let’s take another example- I know you’re exhausted and your legs cannot take it anymore. If we interchange the two, the result is a very weird sounding sentence- I know your exhausted and you’re legs cannot take it anymore. Your what? You are legs?
I hope this makes it clear!
3. It’s and Its: Yet another commonly confused set of words, the difference between its and it’s is somewhat similar to your and you’re. Again, it’s is simply a contraction of ‘it is’.
Example- It’s a wonderful day outside or it’s been a long time since we met. Replace with the expanded form- it is and you get the same meaning.
Using ‘its’, however, in the above mentioned sentences will be incorrect since its is a possessive of the pronoun it.
Example- The hungry cat ate its food. The moon looked beautiful with its white rays in the night. Notice how food and white rays are attributes of the two subjects?
4. Accept and Except: It is really surprising that these two words, despite having significantly different meanings, are commonly confused by many.
Accept is a verb with different meanings- to consider or hold something as true; receive willingly something given or offered; give an affirmative reply to; respond favorably to etc.
On the other hand, except means not including. It can be used as a:
Preposition- No one was invited to my birthday party except my family
Conjunction- I would like to help him out, except I am broke myself
Verb- He took exception at being singled out at the meeting
5. Desert vs Dessert: Desert has two meanings- one the verb that means to forsake or abandon or leave without permission. Example- The soldiers deserted the army camp after seeing the enemy approach; the heartless mother abandoned her kids.
The other is a fairly simple noun that most people know- the Thar desert or the Sahara desert- an arid piece of land with barely any vegetation.
Desert is commonly confused with dessert, which is a sweet dish served at the end of a meal. Watch out for that extra ‘s’ when you use the two!
6. Lose vs loose: Another set of commonly confused words with one invariably used as a substitute for the other by many people. Lose has negative connotations and is associated with failure. For instance- I lost my car keys; We lost the match. Another thing to note is that lose is a verb while loose is an adjective.
The usage of loose varies and it can be used to signify several things- ‘he was wearing loose clothes’, i.e. clothes that are not tight. Or ‘the rules at that organization are very loose’ which means that the organizations has pretty relaxed rules.
7. Flammable vs Inflammable: Here is a real doozy. Consider the sentence- ‘be careful while working with a gas stove, and avoid wearing flammable/inflammable clothing’. Which word is correct? And what do the two words actually mean? You will be shocked to know that both have the same meaning i.e. capable of being easily ignited or burning quickly! Usually when we see in- used as a prefix, we take the word to be an antonym of the remaining word. So active and inactive are different, conclusive and inconclusive have opposite meanings but flammable and inflammable are unique exceptions.
8. Principal vs Principle: It is very easy to confuse these two words and I would not be surprised if even native speakers are befuddled when it comes to using the correct one in the relevant context. For instance, take these following two sentences-
The principle aim of this project is to spread financial literacy in India.
There are many engineers who do not understand the principals of basic design.
Can you make out which one is correct?
Both are wrong!
Principal is used commonly as an adjective meaning ‘main, primary or most important’
Example- The principal aim of the project is to spread financial literacy in India. The usage here is correct.
Principal is also used as a noun to refer to a person who is the head of a school, college, or any educational institution, as well as to the most important person of an organization or group. Yet another use is in financial terminology, when it refers to a sum of money lent or invested. Remember principal, interest et al that you read in school?
Let’s look at principle now. Its basic meaning is ‘main meaning is ‘a fundamental idea or general rule that is used as a basis for a particular theory or system of belief’.
Example- principles of design, principles of medical practice etc. Another important use of principle is when it is used as a plural form and means ‘a rule or belief about what is right and wrong that governs the way in which someone behaves’.
Example- The human rights activist refused to cow down to threats and stuck to his principles.
9. Stationary vs Stationery: Another set of words that are easily confused. Just one letter can completely change the meaning of the word. Stationary means not moving or still.
Example- The kidnappers ordered the hostages to remain in a stationary position
On the other hand, stationery refers to the office and writing supplies e.g. pen, paper, notebooks, envelopes etc.
Example- The office stationery was yet to be replenished.
Remember, the ‘e’ in the stationery can mean envelope. That will help you avoid being confused between the two!
10.Disinterested vs Uninterested: There is a lot of controversy regarding the difference between disinterested and uninterested. But let’s clear this up for once and all. Uninterested means not wanting to learn more about something or become more involved. It is typically considered as the correct antonym for interested.
Example- Priyanka was uninterested in the issues of the theatre society, so they decided to stop asking for her help.
Disinterested, on the other hand, should be used to signify impartiality or not influenced by personal opinions or feelings.
Example- A disinterested third party was called to resolve the dispute.
There are many who use disinterested for the same meaning as uninterested. That is considered incorrect English, so be careful!