Words That Confuse Students (and Teachers!)

Let’s face it. English has some confusing words. To a degree, we can rely on our knowledge and our instincts. Thankfully, we’re not without resources. Which ones have you turned to? Some of mine include:

  • Learner’s dictionaries. I have a few bookmarked and I compare findings. In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online, I appreciate the examples from the Corpus.
  • Just The Word usually produces helpful results when you need to check collocations.
  • YouGlish is mainly a pronunciation tool, but I’ve also used it to check how a word is used in a range of spoken contexts.
  • The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is a tool that’s often recommended at TESOL conventions.
  • Google allows me to compare the frequency of two collocations. You gain some insight when one phrase gets millions of search results and the other yields fewer than 100 thousand. We can also filter the results and see usage in the news or in books.

There are lists of confusing words online. The following pairs are just some that have come up recently in students’ questions.

WHEN / IF in real conditionals
I set myself up to be questioned when I said there’s basically little difference in meaning between these two subordinating conjunctions in real conditionals about the present or past: I try to stay positive if/when I’m having a bad day.  Of course, some wanted to know what that little difference is. Fortunately, students provided great examples for me to use. One student asked me which word was better to use in her statements:
a. I used to drink five cups of coffee ___ I felt tired in the past, but I can’t do that anymore. 
B. I used to skip class ____ my friend asked me to go out and have some fun.
Both word choices could work. Right? But assuming the coffee habit was a frequent one, it makes sense to use when in the first sentence. Hoping that the student didn’t cut class frequently, I recommended if in the second sentence to suggest it was only on occasion.

Dictionaries don’t help when they simply list one word as a synonym for the other! Studying the examples in a dictionary at least helps us identify the different grammatical patterns each word follows. So while a persons is able to do something,  we can also predict what the person is capable of doing. We can also use capable before a noun, but we don’t use able the same way: a capable surgeon. The best explanation I found online came from Shayna over at Espresso English. She noted the tendency to focus on potential when we use capable. I also appreciate Merriam-Webster’s note on character traits, as in being capable of murder.

I gave the example: No talking during the test. A student then asked if it’s possible to say: No talking throughout the test. Both prepositions refer to a period of time, a duration. Right? Both can refer to a period from beginning to end. In the case of the test, during sounds better, but I’d argue that either preposition would fit this example: We heard a lot of traffic noise during/throughout the night. So when is one word more appropriate than the other? I feel that throughout is better for emphasizing a continuous action. For instance, if the traffic noise was bothersome at every point of the night, then we heard it throughout the night. Here’s another example: a coach can provide support and advice throughout an athlete’s career, that is, from beginning to end. During, in contrast, can allow us to refer to a single instance within a period. For instance, one could get in trouble for talking during the test (even just once), so it’s best to remain silent and focus on your own work throughout the testing period.

Which words have confused your students?

Photo credit: Scale, Question, Importance, Balance by Qimono. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/scale-question-importance-balance-2635397/.

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