132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4



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. A well-known example – often explained in English language coursebooks – is principle versus principal. 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.




Consider these example sentences:

(a) Registration takes place every year in July.

(b) The Roman Empire existed for 1000 years.

The choice between the two verbs depends on the kind of noun (or noun equivalent) that is their subject. TAKE PLACE, which resembles OCCUR and HAPPEN, needs nouns expressing actions or events (e.g. registration, festival), while EXIST needs other subject kinds. If these needs are not met, the sentence is likely to sound illogical (see 170. Logical Errors in Written English).

Nouns expressing actions are extensively illustrated elsewhere within this blog in the posts 14. Action Outcomes and 131. Uses of “Action” NounsVerbs differing mainly in the kind of subject or object that they take are further discussed in 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words.

Here is a confusion of the above two verbs that I once encountered:

(c) *An ethnic conflict area took place nearby.

The subject here is area, a clear candidate for EXIST. It is possible that the writer wrongly took conflict – a candidate for TAKE PLACE – as the subject instead (for advice on recognising subjects, see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices). It is also possible that the true subject area induced the wrong verb because it has a similar meaning to place.

One final point to note is that TAKE PLACE is not always the best choice with an action subject: the passive form of MAKE, GIVE or CARRY OUT is often preferred, e.g. a speech was given, a study is being carried out and haste must be made. For more, see 173. “Do Research” or “Make Research”?.



The most usual meaning of REALISE is “appreciate” or “discover”, e.g.:

(d) New parents quickly realise the demands made by babies.

A common mistake is to think that the meaning is “make real”, or “cause to exist”. Sentence (d) does not mean that parents create the demands of babies! The mistake is an understandable interpretation of REAL + ISE, especially by speakers of a mother tongue where a similarly-spelt word actually has that meaning. In English, EFFECT is the verb that means “cause to exist”, like this:

(e) Change must be effected at the highest level.

Care must be taken not to confuse EFFECT with AFFECT (see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2).

A further cause of confusion is that REALISE can very occasionally mean the same as EFFECT, for example in the expressions realise an ambition and realise one’s assets. I suspect, however, that very few object nouns allow REALISE instead of EFFECT.



These alternatives might be used in sentences like the following:

(f) Einstein gave/paid attention to the problem of gravity.

Gave here suggests that Einstein merely turned his attention away from something else. Paid, however, suggests that he increased his attention to the maximum: perhaps he had been only a little interested before in the problem of gravity, or even daydreaming!

A grammatical point to note is that GIVE allows his (or other possessive adjective) after it while PAY does not. An alternative to GIVE is TURN, but then you must also have his or equivalent. Whichever verb is used, the whole phrase is an example of both a “collocation” and a “prepositional” verb (see 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun).


4. NOTE versus NOTICE

If you notice something, you perceive it without specifically having looked for it. You may not have been looking for anything at all, or you may just have been looking without any clear idea of what you wanted to find. On the other hand, to note something is to find it interesting and perhaps even to record it. Quite often, though, what you note is something that you noticed first. Consider the following:

(g) Astronomers noted a strange brightness in the sky.

We can guess from this that that the strange brightness was not deliberately searched for – that it had been noticed. However, the use of noted rather than noticed also tells us that the astronomers considered it important enough to be remembered, perhaps in writing.

Both verbs are able to introduce an indirect statement with as or that (see 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech). However, it is mostly NOTE that is used with the particular indirect speech of academic “citations” (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs and 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”). In other words, notes is more likely than notices to report the words or ideas of another writer. NOTICE is perhaps most suitably used in the past tense to report a single research experience.

(h) Williams (2015, p. 62) noticed a subtle change in the mixture.



This contrast between present simple and present continuous uses of the same verb involves rather more than the normal difference between these two “tenses”. The basic use of LOOK FORWARD TO is to show eagerness about a future event mentioned after it. Verbs in the event need -ing (see 35. “To Do” versus “To Doing” and 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2).

The special meaning of I (or We) look forward to (without am … -ing) is similar to “await”. It does not suggest much emotion, and it implies that the future event depends on the addressee’s cooperation – is not inevitable – and is hence very polite in tone. It is especially used at the end of formal letters, e.g.:

(i) We look forward to receiving the documents in due course.

Using the more emotional we are looking in such situations is a common error among writers whose mother tongue is not English. Its meaning is more like “we are longing for”. It suggests that the desired event is also exciting and will certainly occur, perhaps because no cooperation between different people is involved. An example might be:

(j) We are looking forward to our summer holiday.



While both of these involve the idea of chasing something lost, only the latter suggests a formal organised operation. Compare:

(k) The police are out in a search for the murder weapon.

(l) Socrates spent his whole life in search of Truth.

We understand here that Socrates’ search was not formally organised in the way the police one was.

The grammar of the two expressions is a clue to their meaning. The presence of a before search in (k) marks it as countable, while its absence in (l) marks it as uncountable (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). The difference that this makes to the meaning is the one examined in depth in the post 19. Activity Locationsa search (+ for) is a typical context or location of an activity, while uncountable search (+ of) is the activity itself. The idea of organization is perhaps suggested more by the first of these meanings than the second.



To say how long something takes, it is normally enough to use a time-period word like minute, hour, day etc. by itself, without adding the word time:

(m) The task will be completed in two days.

(n) Lectures normally take an hour.

The expression an hour’s/week’s (etc.) time means “an hour/week (etc.) from now”, and hence refers to the future (see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings). It is normally found after in, like this:

(o) The task will be completed in two days’ time.

Sentence (m) does not necessarily say when the task will be completed, only how long it will take. However, (o) is naming the future moment of the task’s completion.



Only the first of these means “causing tiredness”. It could describe causes of either physical or mental tiredness, such as exercise or concentration. Tiresome, on the other hand, suggests a challenge to interest and patience, making it close in meaning to irritating. Typical words that it might describe include childishness, chores and complaints.


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