6 Commonly Confused Word Pairs

I advise you to take my advice…

ESL FlashcardsVocabulary is one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language. There are just so many words to remember! It really doesn’t help when two words sound the same or look the same, like advice and advise. Talk about confusing! In my experience, students struggle with certain challenging word pairs whether they’re beginners or advanced. Not surprisingly, these word pairs often end up on exams like the TOEIC. I’ve compiled a list below of the words that I think are among the most difficult for students to keep straight. Teach your students these words in depth using the info below, or just review them from time to time: either way, your students will be ahead of the game if they can master these word pairs!

1. advice / advise

There are differences in grammar and pronunciation for these two words.

A. ADVICE

  • Meaning: a suggestion or recommendation meant to help someone
  • Grammar: noun
  • Pronunciation: the second syllable has an soft /s/ sound
  • Example: She gave me some good advice when she told me to study hard.

B. ADVISE

  • Meaning: to suggest something to someone in order to help them
  • Grammar: verb
  • Pronunciation: the second syllable has a hard /z/ sound
  • Example: The teacher advised the students to study hard for the final exam.

2. effect / affect

There are differences in grammar for these two words. When speaking quickly and naturally, these words sound the same, so the position in the sentence (subject, verb, object) is important.

A. EFFECT

  • Meaning: the result or influence of something
  • Grammar: noun
  • Pronunciation: when speaking slowly, the first syllable has an /i/ sound (as in teeth), but when speaking quickly and naturally, the first syllable has a schwa sound (as in the) because it is unstressed
  • Example: Turning up the volume had no effect on the sleepy students.

B. AFFECT

  • Meaning: to influence or produce an effect on
  • Grammar: verb
  • Pronunciation: when speaking slowly, the first syllable has an /ae/ sound (as in cat), but when speaking quickly and naturally, the first syllable has a schwa sound (as in the) because it is unstressed
  • Example: This medicine might affect your driving because it causes drowsiness.

For practice with effect and affect, try the Vocabulary Review (on page 3) in our Famous People lesson on Chris Hadfield.

3. accept / except

There are differences in grammar and meaning for these two words, but they sound very similar.

A. ACCEPT

  • Meaning: to receive something willingly or approve of something or someone
  • Grammar: verb
  • Pronunciation: the first syllable has an /ae/ sound (as in cat), but when speaking very quickly, the schwa sound (as in the) is produced because the vowel is unstressed
  • Example: He accepted the invitation and was looking forward to the party.

B. EXCEPT

  • Meaning: with the exclusion of something or someone
  • Grammar: preposition
  • Pronunciation: when speaking slowly, the first syllable has an /E/ sound (as in get), but when speaking quickly and naturally, the first syllable has a schwa sound (as in the) because it is unstressed
  • Example: I finished all my homework except for my difficult math assignment.

4. especially / specially

There are differences in pronunciation for these two words. The grammar is the same and the meanings are similar, so make sure to point out to your students that “specially” is not common, and they will almost always use “especially.”

A. ESPECIALLY

  • Meaning: in particular, to emphasize something
  • Grammar: adverb
  • Pronunciation: there are four syllables, and the first syllable has a schwa sound (as in the)
  • Example: I hate all vegetables, especially broccoli.

B. SPECIALLY

  • Meaning: in a special way
  • Grammar: adverb
  • Pronunciation: there are only three syllables, and this word does not begin with a schwa sound
  • Example: She is popular because she treats her friends specially.

5. immigrate / emigrate

There are differences in pronunciation for these two words. The grammar is the same and the meanings are similar, so make sure to point out to your students that “emigrate” is not common, and they will almost always use “immigrate.”

A. IMMIGRATE

  • Meaning: to move to another country
  • Grammar: verb
  • Pronunciation: the first syllable has a /I/ (uppercase i, not lowercase L) sound (as in hit)
  • Example: He immigrated to Canada last year when his dad got transferred.

B. EMIGRATE

  • Meaning: to move from another country
  • Grammar: verb
  • Pronunciation: the first syllable has a /E/ sound (as in get)
  • Example: They emigrated from Brazil in 2010, and they miss the warm weather.

6. custom / customs

There are important differences in meaning for these two words. Make sure you point out that meaning A becomes “customs” in the plural, and takes a plural verb, but meaning B is always singular, and takes a singular verb.

A. CUSTOM

  • Meaning: tradition
  • Grammar: noun
  • Pronunciation: no /s/ sound at the end of the word in the singular, but /s/ sound at the end of the word in the plural
  • Example: Taking your shoes off when you enter someone’s house is a custom in my country. (Another example: Certain customs were followed. Note the plural verb.)

B. CUSTOMS

  • Meaning: when entering another country, the place where you show your passport and declare your goods
  • Grammar: noun
  • Pronunciation: /s/ sound is always at the end of the word
  • Example: I always get nervous when I go through customs at the airport. (Another example: Customs was intimidating. Note the singular verb.)

I hope this clears up the confusion for your students!

Tanya

6 comments

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  1. learn@myhappyenglish.com'

    Michael says:

    Feb 03, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks, Tanya. It’s a great list. I can bet there are a lot of native English speakers who don’t realize the difference between effect and affect…

    Reply

  2. pardhiseo04@gmail.com'

    Charliecoy says:

    Dec 11, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Brilliant article.You have given very clear points to avoid Confused Word Pairs.Keep up the excellent work.

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Dec 12, 2012 at 3:32 am

      Thanks so much! It made me very happy to read your comment. :)

      Reply

  3. tuesday@rs2i.fr'

    tuesday gadeyne says:

    Nov 26, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    VERY NICE EXCERCISE

    Reply

    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Nov 28, 2012 at 11:35 pm

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked it!

      Reply

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