Grammar Corner: Confusing Word Pairs

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In this edition of Grammar Corner, we discuss some of the most widely used grammar errors in the English language. We don’t just correct you, though; we pinpoint exactly why a particular word/phrase/idiom is used incorrectly, while providing the context for each mistake, and then providing the right word/phrase/idiom.

Most of the time, a grammar error occurs because of homophones. Homophones are two words that sound exactly the same but mean vastly different things. But it’s not just their meaning that’s different; homophones can also function as vastly different parts of speech. Other word pairs, however, differ only in spelling, a difference that is brought about by cultural quirks.

In this article, we take a brief look at commonly confused word pairs. If you want to learn more about each pair, along with some examples, click on their links.

Confusing Word Pairs

Ad vs. Add

The word “ad” is actually a colloquial term; it is the shortened form of the word ‘advertisement’, which makes it a noun. The word ‘ad’ was first used in 1841. Back then, printers charged people by the letter, and so crafty businessmen sought to cut costs by finding words that they can shorten without it being unintelligible, thus, advertisement was shortened to ad, and it has become widely used in both informal speech and informal writing. However, take note that, in formal writing, the full word ‘advertisment’ should be used.

On the other hand, the word “add”, while able to be used as the shortened form of the word ‘addition’, functions more as a verb rather than as a noun. To add means to combine things, usually numbers, to create a new thing like a sum

Aid vs. Aide

“Aid” is both a noun and a verb that often refers to providing material help (often through the form of monetary donations) or voluntary assistance. In terms of a noun, “aid” is the goods or assistance given by one party to another because the receiver is usually in need of it.

“Aide” is used solely as a noun – more specifically, it’s a job role. An aide is also known as an assistant. While there are other words used to describe this position, the term “aide” is often reserved for assistants of politicians and very important people. And this aide’s job? To provide aid to the person they work for.

Allude vs. Elude

“Allude” is a verb which means to subtly hint or draw attention to. Its noun form, allusion, is a figure of speech in which someone mentions an object, person, or event without directly stating it. The listener or reader therefore has to be able to make the connection.

The word “elude” is also a verb, but it has a very different meaning. To elude is to avoid in a skillful or cunning way without detection from the person or thing you’re trying to avoid. It also means to fail to reach a certain achievement, which may or may not be due to one’s own fault.

Already vs. All Ready

“Already” is an adverb, which are words that describe adjectives (e.g. red, ugly, three), verbs (danced, typed, climbing), and other adverbs (abruptly, immediately, playfully). It’s used to describe a certain time condition that occurred before, has happened now, or has been completed at the time the speaker speaks.

“All ready,” however, isn’t an adverb, but a phrasal adjective used to describe a collective group. A phrasal adjective is two or more words used to modify a noun. Some examples of these include an “ice-cold” drink, a “poorly run” business, or a “four-story” building.

Analysis vs. Analyses

Compared to other similar words tackled in Grammar Corner, this is fairly easy to remember. If you’re referring to one study, you use the word “analysis.” But when you’re referring to multiple studies, you use the term “analyses.”

For example, if you and your classmates are assigned to read a case study for class, and you show up to class the next day realizing you forgot to read it, you can ask your classmate, “Have you read the analysis?” to see if they can give you a brief summary of what they’ve read.

But if the teacher assigns you to read multiple case studies, the correct sentence would be, “Have you read any of the analyses?” Or, if you’re writing your own study and used similar studies in the past as references, you could write that your sources were “based on multiple analyses.” Studies usually require multiple other studies to provide solid evidence; if you say “analysis,” you’re literally saying your study only has one academic source as proof, which doesn’t hold a lot of credibility in the academe.

Bear with Me vs. Bare with Me

Let’s get one thing straight: the correct phrase is BEAR with me, not BARE. Yes, using BARE makes more sense because the word ‘bear’ often brings up images of a giant, furry animal with large claws and teeth. Of course, the word bear has other connotations, but perhaps this is where the confusion stems from.

Brake vs. Break

The word ‘break’ is usually used as a verb, and, depending on context, could mean various things, such as to describe separating a thing into parts suddenly (as in, to break something in half), to violate or transgress (as in, break the law), to force entry (as in, break into a house), and so on and so forth.

The brake vs. break argument is extra confusing to some people because both words can operate as verbs. However, the word “brake” refers to both the noun (i.e. a device that stops moving vehicles) and the verb (i.e. the action of slowing down or stopping a vehicle using a brake).

Capital vs. Capitol

Most of the time, when people use the word Capital, they’re referring to the primary, or most important, city of a country or state, or as the center of a particular industry. Sometimes, however, Capital can also refer to a financial item, be it cash, people, equipment, or other things that a business might use to generate profit. It can also refer to capital letters, which is when you use upper-case letters in spelling.

In contrast to Capital, Capitol with an O refers to a specific building (or, in some cases, a complex of buildings) where a state’s legislature is set to meet. This is more often used in American English, as other countries meet in other buildings (e.g, the British parliament meets in the House of Lords or Commons, the Chinese government meets in the People’s Congress, etc.).

To note, though: the word capitol is only capitalized if it’s referring to a specific building or a complex of buildings. If it’s referring to capitols in general, then it doesn’t have to be capitalized.

Canon vs. Cannon

Simply put, cannon and canon are two vastly different things: one is a large gun, the other is a large body of written works, principles, or Holy Scriptures.

Cannons are a type of firearm that’s usually used as artillery by militaries. It launches a projectile using a propellant, usually in the form of gunpowder. Cannons vary in terms of caliber and size. The word ‘cannon’ is derived from the Old Italian word cannone, which means a tube of a large size. Cannone itself is derived from the Latin canna, which is itself derived from the Greek word kanna, meaning reed (alluding to the shape of the cannon as a large, reed-like tube).

Canon, on the other hand, is vastly different from cannon. Unlike the weapon of war, canon refers to a large body of writing. It’s usually used to refer to books, but can also be used to refer to a series of established principles, rules, or law. Alternatively, it’s also used to refer to Church doctrine, as well as books accepted in the Bible.

Cancelled vs. Canceled/Color vs. Colour

Let’ get one thing straight: both words are correct, but it is dependent on whether your audience is using British English or American English: The British spell it as Cancelled and Colour, while the Americans spell it as Canceled and Color. If you ever feel frustrated about the seemingly unnecessary spelling variations between British and American English, you have one person to blame: Noah Webster.

Noah Webster was a famous lexicographer and editor back in the early 1800s, but it’s his job as a political writer that inspired him to push for a reform of the English language. Noah Webster believed that the newly minted United States of America needed its own language: English was, of course, the de facto national language, but he wanted to differentiate it from its colonial forebears. This was Webster’s way of trying to propagate American ‘superiority’ by reimagining how words were spelled.

Of course, it wasn’t always because of his nationalistic spirit: Webster also chose to redefine a word’s spelling on the grounds of simplicity, analogy, or etymology. By 1828, he published the American Dictionary of the English Language, which set the precedent for American English standards like spellings of words that end in –er, dropping e at the end of certain words, as well as the doubling of consonants with a suffix.

Council vs. Counsel

In general, counsel is used to describe any kind of instruction, advice, or opinion. However, in law, a counsel is a person’s legal advocate or legal adviser. As a verb, to counsel means to give advice or to advise someone with specific instructions, for example:

Meanwhile, a council is a noun that describes a group of people who are gathered to advise, consult, or even discuss specific topics. Councils usually address legislative or even administrative matters. Council is always a noun; never a verb.

Course vs. Coarse

The word “course” can be used as a noun (which, in turn, has plenty of uses) and a verb. As a noun, it can mean a lot of things, including:

  • A part of a meal (“The wedding had a luxurious seven-course meal.”)
  • A track or route (“The navigation system plotted a course for the fastest route to the house.”)
  • A venue usually meant for sports (“Your father is playing somewhere on the gold course.”)
  • A lecture or guide on a certain academic subject (“Through Education offers plenty of courses on grammar.”)

It’s up to the reader or listener to use context clues and understand which one of these noun definitions are most appropriate for the scenario. As a verb, however, it only has one meaning: the original French usage of how liquid flows through. It can be used figuratively, like when you say a father’s blood runs through his child’s veins, and it can be used literally, like when you describe the swiftness of a coursing river.

“Coarse”, on the other hand, is a younger word in the English language. The word “coarse” is only an adjective meaning something rough, thick, and sparse – usually something of low quality from materials like fabrics or fur. During its early use, it was meant to describe something that was of ordinary or inferior quality.

Discrete vs. discreet

“Discreet” is an adjective. To say something or someone is discreet means it goes by unnoticed, does not arouse suspicion, and attracts as little attention as possible to itself. A person, animal, or object would try to be discreet usually for three reasons: to avoid unwanted attention, to avoid offending others, or to gain an advantage from moving unseen.

Discrete is also an adjective and is much closer to its Latin origin’s definition. It refers to an object that is separate and distinct from the rest of the bunch. Its counterpart is “continuous,” which groups objects into one group without interruption.

Do vs. Due

In the do vs. due argument, always remember: do is a verb, it’s a word that performs an action. In some cases, it’s also an auxiliary verb, often used in interrogatory sentences. While the word Do is a verb, it’s also an irregular verb. Irregular verbs are action words that do not adhere to common conjugation rules for other verbs. The conjugation of Do in the past is also irregular; however, for simple past tense, the conjugation of do is did.

Meanwhile, due is an adjective, or a noun, depending on usage. As a noun, due usually means something that is owed to someone, either as payment or as property of sorts. When used as a noun, it’s most often used in plural form. When using Due as an adjective, the word takes on a slightly different meaning.  As an adjective, due means an event of sorts that is either expected or planned out.

Immigrate vs. Emigrate

The word immigrate means to enter a foreign region and settling there, be it temporary or permanent. However, in a geo-political context, to immigrate implies permanently relocating to another country. People who immigrate are called immigrants. Note that the word ‘immigrate’ is distinguished from ‘migrate’ by its implication: migration is simply the act of moving or crossing geo-political boundaries, whereas immigrating in moving or crossing geo-political boundaries and settling in a foreign region.

In contrast, emigration is the act of leaving a home country as opposed to immigration, which is the act of entering a foreign country. In a geo-political context, a person or a people might choose to emigrate from their homes in an effort to escape oppressive conditions or to seek asylum elsewhere. However, it can also be used to denote a person or a people leaving their homes and seeking employment in a foreign land.

Implicit vs. Explicit

When we use the word implicit, we mean to say that something was implied; that is, an idea, thought, or opinion was expressed without being directly stated. Alternatively, an idea, thought, or opinion was stated suggestively, meaning that, while the idea, thought, or opinion wasn’t said out loud, everything else surrounding it suggests it.

On the other hand, when we use the word explicit, we mean to say that something was explicated; that is, an idea, thought, or opinion was expressed directly. This idea, thought, or opinion is made very clear, spelled out completely so as to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

Isle vs. Aisle

When we use the word aisle, we mean to say a passageway between rows, usually rows of seats, but can also be the passageway between buildings, walls, and other such structures. With this definition in mind, aisle can also be used as a metaphor, specifically in a political context. In this case, aisle in a political context refers to both the physical and metaphorical division between political parties.

In contrast, the word isle is much simpler in definition. Isle is short for island, and usually refers to a small island.

Let us vs. Lets

Usually, our articles are centered on homonyms; that is, word pairs that sound exactly the same and spelled very similarly, but with very different meanings. For this edition of grammar corner, however, we’ll be discussing a common issue with newer writers: apostrophes.

In grammar, apostrophes have a couple of functions: it shows when a noun possesses another noun, and it’s used to indicate the omission of letters, like in contractions. Contractions are words that have letters omitted in an attempt to make them more succinct. When this happens, a word is shortened and the omitted letters are replaced by an apostrophe.

The word lets (sans apostrophe) is the 3rd person singular present tense of the verb let. In its basic form, the word ‘let’ means to allow. This means that Lets is a conjugation of the word let. The word Let’s (with apostrophe) is a contraction of the words “let” and “us”. This is used to shorten those two words into a single word.

Loss vs. Lost

When we use the word ‘loss’, we are using it to describe the act of losing something or someone, or the instance of losing something or someone.

When we use the word lost, we’re using it as the past tense and past participle of the word lose. In this instance, lost functions as a verb, this means that we’re supposed to see it follow a subject. However, lost can also be used as an adjective.

Paid vs. Payed

In most cases, the word ‘paid’ is the word that people want to use. Paid is the past tense of the word ‘pay’, which, in this context, means to give or transfer something to something or someone. The word ‘paid’ usually has a financial or transactional meaning, and as such, is the word that most people mean when they’re trying to decide between paid vs. payed.

It might look wrong, but the word Payed is actually correct, albeit in a very limited and very niche sense of the word. While we discussed how the word ‘pay’ can mean giving something to someone, it also has a slightly different meaning in nautical terms.

In a nautical aspect, the word ‘pay’ means to give slack to something, usually ropes on a ship. It can also mean to seal the hull seams of a ship with tar or pitch.

Peel vs. Peal

More often than not, most people are referring to the word “peel” when they’re writing, as this is more commonly used than peal. In most instances, peel is meant as a verb and it means to remove the outer layer of something, whether it’s fruit, vegetable, meat, or anything else. As a noun, it refers to the actual skin of an object.  Peel, both as a noun and a verb, can also be used in various phrases.

Often, when people use the word “peal”, they’re really trying to say “peel”. Peal is a more specific word for use in specific contexts. As a noun, peal means a loud noise associated with ringing. As a verb, peal is that noise being emitted by someone or something.

Then vs. Than

As an adverb and sometime-adjective, the word ‘then’ has multiple meanings depending on its function. However, more often than not, the word ‘then’ is used when the sentence is discussing something that is time-related.

In contrast, the word ‘Than’ is a conjunction used when making a comparison between things, events, and many more



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