157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5


It can be 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. The problem is that many of these expressions are never highlighted and can remain completely unrecognised, or at least not fully differentiated.

It is expressions of this kind, 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 about vocabulary confusions include 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words,  44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs and 94. Essay Instruction Words. For some grammar confusions, see 133/165. Confusions of Similar Structures 1/2, and for some pronunciation ones 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly.



1. “No Doubt” versus “There is No Doubt”

Either of these expressions could begin a sentence, as in this example:

(a) No doubt flood victims take years to recover.

Paradoxically, dropping there is before no doubt like this suggests the absence of certainty: that the speaker has no proof of the accompanying statement’s truth and is merely making a guess. The words I have could be added at the start without changing the meaning. This opinion-showing feature means no doubt is quite similar to undoubtedly (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs and 107. The Language of Opinions).

Beginning with there is, on the other hand, does establish the accompanying statement as a fact. It is an example of what I have elsewhere called a “characterising” use of there is (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences). It could be paraphrased as proof has been obtained. There needs to be a following that, either explicit or implicit (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).


2. “At the Moment”, “Nowadays”, “Today” and “Now”

These look like synonyms but are not. At the moment suggests an ongoing temporary situation, often in contrast with the future, like this:

(b) At the moment exchange rates are favourable.

The implication here is that exchange rates may be different tomorrow.

Nowadays, on the other hand, contrasts a current situation with one in the historical past, like this:

(c) Nowadays tobacco smoking is out of fashion.

The suggestion here is that tobacco smoking was more fashionable historically.

Today could be used in both (b) and (c) instead of the underlined words: it makes no contrast with any particular other time.

Now could also be used like today, but it has other uses too. One is to suggest that a current situation has come about very recently, like this:

(d) The plane has now landed.

Now can also be used with brief present-time actions, for example in sports commentaries (Now Jones passes …) and as a “signpost” expression to indicate a new topic:

(e) Now it is necessary to consider the consequences.


3. “Emergency” versus “Emergence”

The first of these tends to be the more familiar to learners of English, no doubt because it is more common in both English as a whole and everyday usage. It refers, of course, to a situation that needs an urgent response, such as a sudden serious illness or an imminent disaster.

Emergence, on the other hand, is an “action” noun derived from the verb EMERGE (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). It just means “appearing”, as in this example:

(f) Measles are confirmed by the emergence of a rash.

It quite often happens that emergence is understood as emergency. The reason may be more than just unequal familiarity. The fact that the single different letter is the very last one could be significant. Moreover, the multi-consonant ending of emergence is likely to be a problem for speakers of languages that rarely have consonant combinations, such as Swahili, Japanese or Italian: they may be tempted to imagine that there is a spoken vowel at the end, so that they are even more likely to think the word is emergency (for more on this kind of error, see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly).


4. “In the First Place” versus “In First Place”

In the first place is an adverb-like expression normally associated with the whole of its sentence rather than any part (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs and 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases). It has the “signpost” function of introducing the first item in a multi-sentence list (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). It is similar in meaning to firstly or to begin with (but not to first – see 20. Problem Connectors).

In first place, on the other hand, can be used like either an adverb or an adjective, in the manner of most preposition phrases (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). It means “in the first position in a competition”. Here is a verb-partnering adverb use:

(g) Candidates who finish in first place will be selected.


5. “Energy”, “Power” and “Strength”

I was alerted to the confusion potential of these words on hearing a Scandinavian acquaintance incorrectly say they had no “power” to walk beyond 20km, when energy or strength would have been more appropriate. In general, power cannot be associated with human physical activity, except metaphorically in sports contexts to mean “exceptional energy/strength”. More often, it means “electricity” or “control”.

The difference between energy and strength in the context of human activity is that the former refers to an amount of physical activity (an energetic person is active for longer than the average), the latter a level (a strong person can perform tasks that average people cannot). It is often the case that strength allows people to be energetic, but not always. The contrast between efficient and effective (114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3) is a similar physics-related one.


6. “By all Means” versus “By Every Means”

Normally all and every have very similar meanings (see 169. “All”, “Each” and “Every”), but that is not the case here. Consider this:

(h) The Government aims to alleviate poverty by every means.

The message here is that the Government will use every possible means (= “way”) of alleviating poverty. The word possible is often present just before means.

By all means, on the other hand, is more likely to be found in speech than writing. It says nothing about how something is done, but instead expresses the speaker’s happiness with a requested or suggested course of action. A typical sentence might be:

(i) By all means use the library.

This means “I am very happy for you to use the library”.

The two expressions differ in grammar as well as meaning. By all means is a “sentence” adverb, relating to the whole of the rest of its sentence (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs), while by every means is a “means” adverb, relating just to the verb (see 73. Ways of Saying “How”). The most common error is to use by all means where by every means is needed.


7. “In the End” versus “At the End”

As with the two previous expressions, the first of these is more likely to be a sentence adverb than the second.  However, both can have this use, and that is where I wish to distinguish them. Consider this:

(j) Rome and Carthage fought for supremacy. In the end, Rome was victorious.

The suggestion here is that the end did not come easily: it followed numerous twists and turns or a great deal of effort. A suitable synonym might be eventually. A point to note is that no suggestion of happiness is made about the end being reached – at last is more suitable for that (see 20. Problem Connectors, problem #7).

By contrast, at the end just signals a final action or situation, without any suggestion of preceding struggle. Here is a sentence where only it is possible:

(k) The exhibition was held in Seville. At the end, the site became a business park.

Note how at the end must be followed by an event or situation. If you are merely naming the last item in a list, you should use lastly or finally instead (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists).


8. “Wrong” versus “Wrongful”

The adjective Wrongful is particularly used in legal and religious texts to mean “illegal” or “immoral”, and suggests that punishment is likely or desirable. Accompanying nouns tend to be of the “action” kind (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns, use #1). Typical examples are act, behaviour, conduct, dismissal, entry, interference, neglect, omission and removal.

Wrong, on the other hand, is more widely used and more neutral. It just communicates the undesirability or incorrectness of what it is describing, without necessarily blaming anyone. It will sometimes describe a noun that wrongful can also describe, but not very often. Consider this:

(l) It was a wrong decision to carry a weapon.

Wrongful here would suggest law-breaking, while wrong merely indicates an error of judgement. Nouns that could only have wrong include answer, diet, turning, understanding and way.


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