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Build Your English Vocabulary: Confusing English Words

Updated: Apr 26

4 chickens standing beside each other on a fence rail
kitchens or chickens?

Introduction - Build your English vocabulary

There are many words in English that are confusing. They are confusing because their spellings are similar.

To use them in a correct manner, they must be learnt.

In this article, I will give you a selection of the most confusing examples.

The first pair is:

Chicken – Kitchen

The confusion here stems from the sounds of ‘ch’ and ‘k’.

Both have the same K sound – as in the word ‘lichen’ (pronounced: liken). And furthermore, both are in each word - to add to the confusion.

Next, is:

Bought – Brought

Understand that ‘bought’ is the past tense of ‘buy’.

 ‘Brought’ is the past tense of ‘bring’.

The important (and confusing) letter to note is the R.

“I bought it from the shop yesterday.”

“I brought it to class this morning.”

Passed – Past

Again, passed is the past tense of pass as in ‘not failing’ but it also means to go by something.

“She passed the exam with flying colours.”

Or “He passed the note to his friend.”

Or “We passed all the other cars in the race and won.”

Use Past this way: “We went past all the other cars in the race and won.”

Or “In the past, that was how people did it.”

There – their - they’re

These three are a major source of confusion for English students.

Look at this sentence which should clear up the confusion:

They’re saying that their books have always been there on the desk.”

Compliment – Complement

A compliment can be a noun as well as a verb.

As a noun: “By telling me I had done a great job, she paid me the highest compliment.” Here, compliment means praise.

As a verb: “I must compliment you on your well-written essay.”

A ‘complement’ means something that completes something else or makes it better. It also refers to the crew of a ship. In grammar, a complement is a word or group of words added to a sentence to make it complete.

It can be both a verb or a noun.

As a verb: “Your shiny shoes complement your suit. They make you a complete star.”

As a noun (relating to a ship’s crew): “Half the complement of the ship drowned when it sank.”

As a noun (used in grammar):

 “A complement is a word, phrase, or clause that is necessary to complete the meaning of a given expression.”

Accept – Except

 ‘Accept’ means to take something from someone else, such as a compliment, or to believe a point of view.

'Except’ means everything or anyone but that person.

Examples will help overcome the confusion.

“I’m sorry but I don’t accept that what you are telling me is true.”

“Everyone went to the party except Sally.”

Advice – Advise

This is easier to explain:

Advice is the noun.

 Advise is the verb. Both have the same root meaning.

An easy way to remember the difference is "C for the noun, S for the verb."

“He always gives me great advice!”

“I must advise you against taking that course of action.”

Licence – License

Again, one is a verb while the other is a noun. In US English ‘license’ is both a verb and a noun.

For other English-speaking countries, the same rule for remembering which is which applies.

“C for the noun, S for the verb”.

“I got my driver’s licence today!”

“Now I am licensed to drive a car.”

 ‘Practice’ (noun) and ‘practise’ (verb) follow the same rule except in American English. (As an Australian I had to add ‘practise’ to my MS Word dictionary.)

It is important to remember your readers of your writing. Are they Americans or other English speakers?

Also, it's a good way to tell the writer's nationality.

Adverse – Averse

Adverse is an adjective to describe something preventing success or development; unfavourable, harmful.

“Research of the company came up with adverse findings. The company would fail unless it made changes.”

Averse, meanwhile, means having a strong dislike of or opposition to something.

‘The CEO of the company did not believe the research was thorough enough. She was averse to the findings.”

Lose – Loose

Be comforted in the fact that even native English speakers misuse these two.

One meaning of lose is to fail. Another meaning is to have something taken away. And another is forgetting where something was left.

“His team is playing badly; they are bound to lose the match.”

“Did you lose your phone while you were on the bus?”

“Where did you lose it?”

Loose means something completely different. It means free, not tight-fitting, not restrictive.

Loose tongues sink ships!”

“She loves wearing loose dresses that flow down to the ground.”

“I have a loose tooth and I am afraid of losing it.”

The last three are:

Whether, wether, and weather

The main issue with these words is a problem with spelling.

A wether is a castrated ram – a male sheep.

“We must separate the ewes from the wethers and the rams.”

‘Whether’ is a conjunction. If you want to express a doubt or a choice between alternatives, then use ‘whether'.

“I don’t know whether I should go or stay.”

Weather’ is the state of the atmosphere. It describes, for example, the degree to which it is hot or cold, wet or dry, calm or stormy, clear or cloudy.

“The weather tomorrow will be hot and sultry with a chance of a thunderstorm in the afternoon.”

Getting these words correct relies on good spelling.

My 'simply better' Spelling Method is useful for learning how to spell.

It will teach you a way to always remember how to spell those tricky or difficult words every time.

It's a lesson for life. I use it too!

Scrabble letters spell words Start Today on blue background over white text with name of method on pink backing
Learn how to spell


I hope you have enjoyed these explanations.

And have learned the important differences to build your English vocabulary.

Hopefully, they won’t be so confusing for you in future.

Expanding your vocabulary helps you get better at English generally.

Further Reading

Read this article to learn why having a larger vocabulary is important as well as finding out ways you can get that larger vocabulary.

© Apex English Tutoring Jan 2021 - Updated January 2014

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About Me

Hello and welcome!

My name is Michael Finemore and I am the owner-operator of Apex English Tutoring.

As an experienced English Teacher, I'm passionate about helping people turn their 'poor' English into great English, with easy and effective ways to practice.

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