81. Tricky Word Contrasts (2)




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



Most users of English have encountered expressions that are easily confused because they resemble each other in spelling and/or meaning. Some of these – for example principle/principal – are particularly well-known because they are often explained in English language coursebooks. However, many others are not found there and can remain unexplained and sometimes not even recognised.

It is pairs of expressions like this, especially ones that are likely to occur in professional writing, that are the focus of the present post, just as they are of various others with a similar title (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1 for a complete list). Other Guinlist posts that deal with vocabulary confusions include 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words,  44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs,  94. Essay Instruction Words and 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs. For some grammar confusions, see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures, and for some pronunciation ones 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly.


1.  “Could” versus “Was Able To”

These expressions do feature in many grammar books, but are so often misused that a mention here seems worthwhile. One cause of problems is their non-combinability: you have to choose one or the other, not both of them together (*could be able to). This combination is actually found in some varieties of English, but Standard English excludes it (for more on Standard English, see the article Should East African University students try to change the way they speak English?).

The main problem with could and was able to is that, although their present tense equivalents can and is able to mean the same, the change to the past creates a difference regarding whether or not the action actually took place. If we say The government was able to raise taxes, the message is that taxes did actually go up; was able to is a synonym of managed to. On the other hand, could raise taxes tells us only about a potential – that the power to raise taxes existed – without saying whether or not taxes were actually raised.

The most common error with these expressions is using could instead of was able to. The advice, therefore, is to stop before using could, consider whether or not the action actually happened, and change to was able to if it did.

2.  “On the Top of” versus “On Top of”

The first of these, with the, involves the basic meaning of top, namely “highest part”. Thus, if someone lives on the highest part of a hill, it would be appropriate to say that they lived on the top of the hill. Without the, you could also communicate the same meaning (on top of the hill), but you could alternatively mean “in addition to”, as in:

(a) The claimant suffered personal injury on top of financial loss.

This is an example of a metaphorical meaning (see 7. Metaphorical Meanings), and is also expressible with besides.

3.  “In the Process” versus “In Process”

The first of these, with the, is a connector (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors). It is normally used with the second of two simultaneous events or situations, like this:

(b) Numerous witnesses were interviewed. In the process, a list of suspects was compiled.

The meaning here is “while the process is (or was) taking place” – in other words “meanwhile”. In addition, however, there is a suggestion that the first event or situation is a cause of the second.

Without the, in process is an adjective phrase meaning “in operation” or “happening”.  It often follows BE (e.g. communication was in process). When there is no verb like BE, it must, like all preposition phrases, follow rather than precede its noun (e.g. growth in process – see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).

4.  “Aspects” versus “Respects”

Each of these can have the general meaning of “parts”. The main difference seems to be less what they mean than where they are used. English especially prefers respects in comparisons (see 82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons) and when it can be paraphrased by ways after in, for example in good in some respects or differs in three respects. Elsewhere, aspects seems preferable, e.g. Three main aspects will be considered or … is an aspect often overlooked.

5.  “Effect” versus “Affect”

This confusing pair is sometimes explained in coursebooks. The first, beginning with “e”, is mostly a noun meaning “an impact”. It can be used by itself, e.g. The effect was …, or combined with HAVE to express an action (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE), like this:

(c) Climate has a great effect on culture.

Affect, beginning with “a”, is a verb meaning “cause to be different”. It too could be used in (c): in place of all the underlined words we would write greatly affects. Changing the adjective great into the adverb greatly recognises the fact that affects is a verb and not a noun (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs).

Adding to the confusion is the fact that effect (with “e”) is also a verb meaning “cause to happen”. For example, if you effect a change you cause a change to happen. Contrast this with affect a change, which would mean “cause a change to be different”.

6.  “Underline” versus “Underlie”

It is easy not to notice the second “n” in underline. This word means “draw a line under”, or (metaphorically) “emphasise”. Without “n”, the meaning is basically “be under” or, metaphorically, “cause”. The cause is usually implied to be hidden. The two words may be illustrated like this:

(d) The road accident rate underlines (emphasises) the need for lower speed limits.
(e) Excessive salt intake often underlies (is the hidden cause of) high blood pressure.

7.  “Help” versus “Facilitate”

These two mean roughly the same (“make easier”), but differ in their grammar. Consider the way HELP is used in these examples:

(f) Exercise helps excess body weight to be reduced.
(g) Exercise helps the reduction of excess body weight.

In both cases, helps is followed by a group of words (underlined) that have the sentence role of “object” (basically, these words are a central noun – weight in (f) and reduction in (g) – and some other words describing it. For more about objects, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). However, the central noun in (f) is followed by a verb with to whereas that in (g) is not. The use of HELP (and numerous words like it – see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar) can thus be summed up by saying that the following words can be either an object by itself or an object combined with a to verb.

When we use FACILITATE, however, we cannot use a to verb after the object (*Exercise facilitates body weight to be reduced). We can, however, use a verb with -ing (facilitates reducing …). For more on FACILITATE, see 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”. For more about grammar making the difference between words, see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words.

8.  “Plant” versus “A Plant”

Some nouns have both a countable form (usable with a or plural -s) and an uncountable form (not usable with a or -s), and they change their meaning slightly in each case (to start reading about the main ways in which noun meanings can slightly change with countability, see 14. Countable Noun Meanings 1).

The noun plant, however, has completely different meanings in its countable and uncountable forms. This means that uncountable plant and countable a plant are actually two different words with the same spelling (see 6. Homonyms and Homographs), rather than different uses of the same word. The meaning of plant is “heavy machinery” while that of a plant is usually the familiar “growing botanical organism”.

Complicating matters, however, is the fact that a plant occasionally has an alternative meaning, again completely different from the others: “building or buildings devoted to a particular industrial process”. We can talk, for example, of a nuclear power plant or a bottling plant.

Another word with very different countable and uncountable meanings is company. The countable form a company means a commercial business, whereas uncountable company means people who are with somebody.

9.  “Amount” versus “Number”

These two nouns are often used with of and another noun, as in a large amount of money. The choice between them depends on the countability of this other noun: if it is countable, choose number; if uncountable, choose amount. The countable noun with number must usually be plural. When of is not present, the noun determining whether to use amount or number will usually be earlier, as in this example:

(h) A crowd of people stood outside. A large number were shouting.
(i) Alcohol in moderation can be beneficial. Large amounts, however, are harmful.

10.  “Concern(ed) With/About/For”

The meanings of concern(ed) change according to the preposition. If it is with the meaning is “involved” or “associated” (e.g. problems concerned with driving); if it is about or for, the meaning is “worried”. The choice between these latter two prepositions depends partly on the kind of noun after them. One kind expresses a person or thing affected by an unwanted happening or situation. Either of the prepositions can go with this sort of noun, like this:

(j) Most doctors are concerned for/about drug abusers.

If there is a difference between the prepositions in this use, it is perhaps that for suggests worry about the future welfare of the people mentioned after it, whereas about links the worry more with what they are doing now.

Alternatively, we can talk about the unwanted activity or situation itself, like this:

(k) Most doctors are concerned about the spread of drug abuse.

As this suggests, about is necessary with a non-human following noun. More words like concerned can be read about in the post 134. Words with a Variable Preposition.

11.  “Editor” versus “Publisher”

Editors are people who choose and/or organise the content of publications. They normally work with publications containing articles by different writers, such as newspapers, magazines and academic journals. Books have an editor only occasionally: when different parts of them are written by different people. In a bibliography, the name of an editor is given only for books. It takes the place normally occupied by an author’s name, followed by the abbreviation (ed) or its plural (eds) (see 130. Formal Abbreviations).

Publishers, on the other hand, are companies that make publications available to the public. They are responsible for all aspects of producing a publication, including the hiring of editors. In a bibliography, publishers’ names are given only for books. They are usually positioned after a book’s title.


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