114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3



It is useful to analyse similar-looking English expressions in order to prevent or stop their confusion



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 versus 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. Posts on tricky grammar contrasts include 133. Confusions of Similar Structures.



1.  “Graphic” versus “Graph”

The word for a line linking points between two axes is a graph. The word a graphic has a more general meaning: any visually-presented information such as a graph, chart, diagram, table, picture or map (see 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”). Graphics can also, of course, mean visual features of a computer program, as when we say that a computer game has “realistic graphics”.

In addition, graphic is an adjective. It can mean “involving a graph” but is often used with the meaning of “explicit” or “shocking”, as in expressions like graphic violence and graphic detail.


2.  “Produce” (noun) versus “Products”

Produce is well-known as a verb but less familiar as an uncountable noun (pronounced with the stress on pro-). Like products, this noun names an outcome of production. The difference is in the kind of outcome: products are industrial while produce is agricultural. Thus, products would normally be used for items like computers, soap and books, while produce might refer to bananas, bread and beer.


3.  “Function” versus “Functioning”

Again it is noun uses that are of interest here rather than verb ones. The function of something is its use or purpose (see 119 BE before a “to” Verb). The function of a refrigerator, for example, is to cool. Functioning, on the other hand, means “way of working”. Thus, the functioning of refrigerators involves the circulation of a volatile liquid through tubes passing inside and outside of a cooling compartment.


4.  “Efficient(ly)” versus “Effective(ly)”

These two adjectives/adverbs both say something good about a process or situation. Effective means that the process or situation achieves its purpose, regardless of how. Efficient, on the other hand, focuses more on how the purpose is achieved, indicating “with minimal cost”. The cost may be of money, time or effort. The usual error is to use efficient when effective would be more appropriate.

It is possible to be effective without being efficient and vice versa. For example, if we hear that students take notes effectively, we will know that they achieve good learning through their note-taking, even if the notes themselves are not very good. And if we hear that notes are efficient (concise, well-abbreviated), we should not conclude that they are helping the note-taker to learn successfully.


5. “Aim to” versus “Intend to”

Both of these are useful for indicating a purpose, but they are not interchangeable. The common error is to use INTEND (or the derived noun intention) when AIM is required. Different confusions are involved. One relates to the holder of the aim/intention: if it is living, there is a need to choose between the two words, but if it is non-living, only aim can be used, like this:

(a) The experiment aims to prove the effectiveness of the drug.

Another confusion relates to the kind of purpose held by a living thing. Aims tend to be more distant. Compare:

(b) The police aim to reduce burglaries by 10%.

(c) The police intend to protest against reduced funding.

Sentence (b) suggests that the purpose is quite distant in the future, and might be achieved through intermediate actions. On the other hand, (c) equates the purpose with the next action to be taken.

A third confusion involves the state of mind of the holder of the purpose. AIM suggests the purpose holder does not definitely consider the purpose to be achievable, whereas INTEND suggests the purpose holders have made up their minds to make it happen – its achievement is very likely.


6.  “To Date” versus “Up To Date”

To date is an adverb meaning “up to the present time and possibly beyond”. It is a synonym of so far (but not of until now – see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1, point #1); while up to date is an adjective meaning “of the latest possible kind”. Compare:

(d) To date, only a few countries have won football’s World Cup.

(e) Up-to-date information is available online.

The underlined words in (d) are an adverb because they show when the action of the verb (have won) occurs (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs); whereas those in (e) are an adjective because they give information about the immediately-following noun information (see 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1).


7.  “Unbelievable” versus “Hard to Believe”

It is not normally appropriate, when you wish to say merely that you do not believe something, to call it unbelievable. Suitable alternatives, such as hard to believe, are considered in detail in the Guinlist post 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in a Formal Way.

Unbelievable usually expresses more than the simple fact that something is hard to believe, especially the idea of “very good”, “very bad” or “very surprising” (see 148. Some Important Prefix Types). It might be found with a word like outcome, hospitality, story, success or cruelty. An unbelievable story is thus not an untrue one but a very good or surprising one.


8.  “Is All That …” versus “Is What …”

These both suggest the sufficiency of what is mentioned before them. Consider this:

(f) Registering a name is what (all that) is needed for participating.

The message is that registering a name is sufficient – nothing else is needed. The difference between the two expressions is that all that is stronger, emphasizing the absence of any other need: what means “the thing that” but all that means “all of the things that”, or “the only thing that”.

An important grammatical point to note is the need to avoid *all what in Standard English: what is the equivalent not of that but of the thing that (see 145. Highlighting with “What” Sentences). Errors like *all what are discussed in detail in the post 133. Confusions of Similar Structures.


9.  “Behave” versus “Behave Oneself”

Behave is similar in meaning to act, whereas behave oneself means “avoid bad behaviour” or “not cause trouble”. Behave and its derivative behaviour are often found in sociological and psychological writing, where interest in the actions of human beings is strong. Behave oneself is slightly patronising:

(g) The children who behaved themselves were rewarded.

A more neutral equivalent here might be showed good behaviour or were well-behaved. For more about verbs combined with a -self word, see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words.


10.  “Critics” versus “Criticisms”

Critics are people who criticise; criticisms are what they say. A common error is to use critics instead of criticisms. A major reason is probably the fact that French and Spanish (and possibly related languages like Italian) use words spelt like critic for both meanings.

However, English too might add to the confusion because it also possesses the French-derived word critique (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). This sounds similar to critic but is close in meaning to criticism (it is a particular type of criticism, lengthy and literary). The verb related to all of these words is, of course, CRITICISE (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing).


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