It is useful to analyse similar-looking English expressions in order to prevent or stop their confusion
THE PROBLEM OF TRICKY WORD CONTRASTS
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.
LIST OF CONTRASTS
1. TAKE PLACE versus EXIST
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 needs nouns expressing actions or events (e.g. registration, festival), while EXIST needs other subject kinds. TAKE PLACE is, in fact, similar in meaning to OCCUR and HAPPEN. Nouns expressing actions are extensively illustrated elsewhere within this blog in the posts 14. Action Outcomes and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns.
The ability of some verbs to differ only in the kind of subject or object that they take is further discussed in the Guinlist post 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 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision” and 141. Ways of Using MAKE.
2. REALISE versus EFFECT
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 rush to satisfy 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.
3. GIVE ATTENTION versus PAY ATTENTION
This contrast is also mentioned in the post 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun. The example sentence given there is:
(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.
4. NOTE versus NOTICE
These verbs both need as their object something observed or perceived, and as a result are both able to introduce an indirect statement with as or that (see 150. Verbs Used with Indirect Speech). The difference is that NOTE additionally implies the communication of the observation or perception to other people (or to oneself as a note). Consider these:
(g) The author notes that the data is sparse.
(h) Astronomers noted a strange brightness in the sky.
The use in (g) says that the author explicitly mentions the point about the data; that in (h) that astronomers did not just observe the brightness – they put it on written record, or at least spoke to others about it.
The extra meaning expressed by NOTE means that it is often used as a “citation” verb, introducing information from a source (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs and 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”). It has this use in (g). If it were to be replaced there by NOTICE, there would be no statement from another source, but merely a report of something observed. Moreover, NOTICE often suggests a lack of intention behind an observation. This too helps to rule it out as a citation verb, since citations are of their nature intended.
5. I LOOK/AM LOOKING FORWARD TO
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 characterise what is mentioned next as an expected desirable future. Any verb placed immediately after must have -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 is similar to “await”. The addressee is normally someone whose cooperation is needed for the future action to happen. It acknowledges this person’s power to make the action happen – in other words does not present the action as inevitable – and is hence very polite in tone. It is common at the end of formal letters, e.g.:
(i) We look forward to receiving the documents in due course.
Using we are looking in such situations is a common error among writers whose mother tongue is not English.
I am looking forward to is similar to “I am longing for”. It suggests that the desirable future will certainly occur, perhaps because the addressee or a third person has already promised to carry it out, or because the subject of the sentence has not needed to involve anyone else in making it happen, as in this example:
(j) We are looking forward to our summer holiday.
6. IN SEARCH OF versus IN A SEARCH FOR
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 good 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 Locations: uncountable search is the activity of searching, while a search is a typical context or location of such an activity. The action meaning of search is also suggested by of after it (see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1).
7. AN HOUR versus AN HOUR’S TIME
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.
8. TIRING versus TIRESOME
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.