48. Tricky Word Contrasts (1)

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Puzzling

Some commonly-confused word pairs are here listed and explained in order to assist their correct use

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THE VARIETY OF TRICKY WORD CONTRASTS IN ENGLISH

Whether or not English is your mother tongue, you may be familiar with the tricky contrast between the two similar words princiPLE and princiPAL. The first is a noun meaning “guiding belief” or “basic rule”, while the second is either an adjective meaning “main” or a noun meaning “head person”. The reason why this contrast is likely to be familiar is that it is, along with a few others, very popular with English Language textbook writers. 

In this post (and the later ones 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2,  114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3,  132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4 and 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5), I wish to present some tricky contrasts that are not often explained in English courses but which have in my experience led to errors by academic and professional writers. These are additional to other contrasts like this that fit better in other posts (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words,  20. Problem Connectors,  26. One Word or Two?,  44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs,  94. Essay Instruction Words and 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs). In addition, a worksheet on tricky contrasts of a more standard kind can be downloaded from the Learning Materials page.

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LIST OF TRICKY ENGLISH CONTRASTS

1. “Until Now” versus “So Far/To Date”

It is very common for speakers whose mother tongue is not English to use until now in a wrong way. Its correct use is to show that something which began in the past is stopping now, e.g.: 

(a) Everything has been going well until now. 

This means that everything is no longer going well. If you want to suggest that the going well might continue into the future, you can instead use to date (see 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3), so far or up to now, but you should consider using nothing at all, because the tense of the verb (present perfect continuous with has) has already got the meaning of these in it. 

Even more care is needed when the sentence contains since, like this: 

(b) Since the start of the year, everything has been going well. 

Here the meaning of “to date” is already expressed in two different ways, through the verb tense and the since (see 61. “Since” versus “Because”), so its communication by more words is even less desirable (see 24. Good and Bad Repetition). On the other hand, until now is still possible, provided of course that you want to express discontinuation.

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2. “By Definition” versus “Defined As”

When defining something, English cannot use by definition, which communicates a consequence of a definition, rather than the definition itself. The normal way to define is with may be (or is) defined as, like this: 

(c) Disinfection may be defined as a process by which an object or area is chemically cleansed of harmful organisms. It is by definition UNSUITABLE FOR FOOD.

The second sentence here names the consequence of the preceding definition. It expects the reader to know that chemical cleaning of food would probably make it poisonous.

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3. “Consider …” versus “Consider … As”

Here is a situation where as is not needed after consider: 

(d) In crowded cities many people consider bicycles the best means of transport. 

Many speakers of other languages than English would want to add as before the underlined words here. The urge is especially likely if their own language has a word like consider which is typically followed by an equivalent of as. 

I used to tell students never to use as after consider, until a computer analysis program showed that sometimes as actually is necessary in English, for example: 

(e) Successful sports teams are likely to consider matches as wars.

It may be that the use without as means “believe”, while the use with it means “visualise” or “imagine”. More on the use of as after verbs is in the post 92. Complement-Showing “As”.

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4. “The Above” versus “This”

The normal use of this is to repeat any part of an immediately-preceding sentence except its subject (see 28. Pronoun Errors). There is no possibility of using the above in this way. This expression refers instead to a data source earlier in the same text, such as a diagram or a statement before the sentence before (see 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”). Below has a similar use (see 74. Listing 3: Bullet Points).

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5. “Economical” versus “Economic”

These are both adjectives derived from the noun economy. The following sentences illustrate how they differ:

(f) A constant speed of 80 kph is economical for cars.

(g) The inflation rate is a key economic indicator of prosperity.

Economical, it is clear from (f), means nothing more than “saving money”. Economic, on the other hand, means “recognised by economists”.

Some other -ic adjectives can similarly add -al to express a slightly different meaning. Common ones are historic(al) and politic(al). Both endings tend to belong to words of Greek origin (see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary).

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6. “Sorry For” versus “Sorry About”

Sorry is used to talk about regrettable events. At the start of a sentence, it is usually an abbreviation of I am sorry or we are sorry. It can show an apology or sympathy. An apology is understood when mention is made of a regrettable action carried out by the sorry person or of the context/result of such an action. For introduces the first and about the second, like this:

(h) Sorry FOR my behaviour/breaking the chair at the party.

(i) Sorry ABOUT the party/the broken chair.

Sorry shows sympathy when the sorry person had no involvement in the regrettable event. About goes with the event itself, while for goes with the people it affects:

(j) Sorry ABOUT your accident.

(k) We are/feel sorry FOR the crash victims.

You cannot start with sorry in sentences like (k).

The adjective happy is a little like sorry. We say we are happy with our own experiences or things (e.g. I’m happy with my new car), happy about other people’s experiences/things (I’m happy about your new job), and happy for other people. For more examples of variable prepositions, see 134. Words with a Variable Preposition.

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7. “Test” versus “Taste”

A special problem with these is their similarity not just in meaning but also in spelling and pronunciation. Indeed, the vowels that make the difference, /e/ versus /eɪ/, sound the same to speakers of some languages. The meaning difference is one of “general/specific”: all tasting is testing, but not all testing is tasting (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). If we test something or somebody, we cause it (or them) to be used (or to behave) in a relevant way so that we can judge it (them). Tasting involves a particular kind of judgemental use: causing something to touch our tongue so we can see if we like it.

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8. “e.g.” versus “i.e.”

Most people know that e.g. means “for example” and i.e. means “that is to say”. But what exactly do these two meanings mean? The difference is in the kind of information that is given next: e.g. introduces an incomplete list (of the kind in the post 1. Simple Example-Giving), whereas i.e. introduces a complete list (see 54. Listing 1: Incidental and 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions). Compare: 

(l) The countries of the UK, e.g. Wales, were once independent.

(m) The countries of the UK, i.e. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, were once independent.

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9. “With Regards” versus “With Regard”

It is so common for regards to be used instead of regard, even by people who speak English as their mother tongue, that some may say the distinction has disappeared altogether. My understanding is this: 

With regards (to) = “With greetings (to)”

With regard to = “With reference to” (= as regards = regarding).

This shows that regards can only be used with the “reference” meaning if it also has as and no following to. In this case it is a singular verb (like regarding), and no longer a plural noun. Here is an example: 

(n) No information is available as regards (or with regard to or regarding) your application.

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10. “In Case Of” versus “In The Event Of”

Compare these two correct uses, which both involve a possible future event: 

(o) A cash reserve is kept in case of an emergency.

(p) Call the manager in the event of an emergency. 

The first is about preparation for the emergency, while the second is about reaction to it. In other words, the underlined idea in (o) exists before the future event, while in (p) it is after. The common mistake is to use in case of in both situations. There is a similar problem with the corresponding conjunctions (if and in case – see 100. What is a Grammar Error? and 118. Problems with Conditional “if”).

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11. “In The Future” versus “In Future”

The difference here is between predictions (with the) and threats, promises, commands or decisions (without the). Only predictions are about uncontrollable future events (see 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions and 147. Types of Future Meaning). Compare: 

PREDICTION

(q) In the future, humans will travel to Mars. 

PROMISE/DECISION

(r) In future, customers will be recompensed. 

COMMAND

(s) In future, you must make your complaint in writing.

Sentence (q) suggests the mentioned future action is outside the control of both speaker and addressee, while (r) suggests a role for the speaker and (s) for the addressee. Adding the before future in (r) would change it into a prediction, with no commitment to make it happen.

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12. “In A Position To” versus “In Position To”

The first of these (with a) is about power or ability, rather than location: 

(t) We are not in a position to assist you. 

This is a polite way of saying that assistance is not possible. On the other hand, the use without the may be exemplified like this: 

(u) The goalkeeper was in position to block the ball. 

This means that the goalkeeper was in the right place. 

Of course, English has many other rarely-considered tricky contrasts. Readers are welcome to ask (through the “comment” facility below) about any that are puzzling them. Note, though, that if I think a dictionary can clarify a contrast (e.g. between wrong and wrongful), I will simply say so without further explanation.

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3 thoughts on “48. Tricky Word Contrasts (1)

  1. Useful list. I find people using “toward” and “towards” interchangeably more often and I am now confused. What’s you opinion? Thanks.

    • Glad you like the list. In answer to your question, my intuitive reaction was that “toward” and “towards” are interchangeable. When I checked in the dictionary I found that “toward” is more likely in American English. So it’s like “-ize” versus “-ise” and suchlike.

      • Thanks and it is helpful…interchangeable in a way, as long as I make sure whether I am spelling American English or not in my text. After all these years, I still prefer “programme” to “program”. 🙂

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