6 Sets of Seemingly Similar Words

What kinds of questions test you as a language teacher?

Grammar-related questions usually generate the most challenging Student Stumpers for me, but that doesn’t mean other queries don’t give me pause. Synonyms or words that appear to be very similar test my knowledge about register and collocations.

I respond to the best of my ability when I’m asked about vocabulary. However, when I’m pressured to reply to a high volume of comments, I can forget to follow up with some useful advice. You know the saying about giving a fishing rod and not just the fish to a hungry person? I’m likely most helpful when I take the time to share my thought process and my resources for getting answers. We need to teach learners how to deal with confusion over words.

  • I often give links to my favorite learner dictionaries online. I encourage students to compare entries and model sentences. I especially like how the LDOCE notes differences between British and American English.
  • I explain what collocations are and give examples. We can recommend that students  keep a vocabulary notebook in some form, stressing that useful information like collocations should be recorded and reviewed. Becoming familiar with set phrases arms a learner for daily communication. Note-taking is easy with apps today, so digital notes can easily be kept on a smartphone.
  • I sometimes suggest an online search to investigate usage of a word or phrase. More advanced learners can handle a basic search using a corpus. I’ve also noted findings through Google, explaining how we can filter search results to see what words are used in the news or in books.

Here are some of the words I’ve been asked about in recent months:

  1. I reckon vs. I suppose. The first is used less frequently, but it’s acknowledged in dictionaries as a spoken expression synonymous with suppose. Personally, reckon sounds rather old-fashioned to me, and I often note those kinds of observations for students.
  2. Tagging on “back” to verbs of motion, such as come back, run back, and go back. “Can I just use return?” asked a student.  Sometimes the addition of “back” simply sounds more conversational. For example, there isn’t a significant difference in meaning between coming back home and coming home, is there? Return and arrive would be preferred in more formal contexts.
  3. Tagging on “up” to create phrasal verbs: zip up, finish up, etc. The same student wondered if the particle “up” made a difference. It does – a small one. Up can emphasize completion or an action done to the full extent.
  4. Electric vs. electrical. This was surprisingly hard to explain because real examples contradicted my understanding. Dictionaries clearly state that electric is used for things that run on electricity: an electric teapot. Electrical is used for what relates to electricity. But online you’ll see both “electric charge” and “electrical charge.” You’ll also find “electric energy” as well as “electrical energy.” This is when I tell students to let the definitions be a guide and look for frequently used wording, like electrical engineering.
  5. Kill vs. murder. Well, both are horrible, right? Murder has a more formal feel to it because it refers to the crime. Killing is simply the act of taking a life. It has broader use. For instance, one could get killed by a falling tree, but we don’t say the tree murdered the person.
  6. Complex, complicated, and sophisticated. This one was tough because there’s some overlap. Connotations play a role here. A complex home security system could overwhelm a user, but “a very sophisticated system” sounds impressive, right? Also, to describe someone as complex might sound off-putting, but it’s quite the compliment to be called sophisticated. When I was asked about the differences, I gave links and lists of common phrases, such as a complex process, a complicated problem, and a sophisticated tool.

I suppose – or I reckon – the English language could be called complex, complicated, and even sophisticated. But the complexities will never kill my passion for learning more!


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