Horribly Confusing English Words

English is host to an endless list of confusing words that although eerily similar have different meanings.

Being at a loose end today, we decided to compile a list of 14 confusing pairs.

In compiling this list, we have relied heavily on the 879-page Garner’s Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition).

Here they are:

* imprudent; impudent

imprudent = rash or indiscreet; impudent = insolently disrespectful

* emigrate; immigrate

emigrate = to migrate or exit from a country ; immigrate = to migrate or enter a country

* inapt; inept

inapt = not appropriate or not suitable; inept = clumsy

* continual; continuous

continual = intermittently, frequently recurring; continuous = unceasing

* incredible; incredulous

incredible = astounding; incredulous = disbelieving, doubting

* egoism; egotism

egoism = a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action; egotism = exaggerated sense of self-importance

* indiscreet; indiscrete

indiscreet = lacking discretion; indiscrete = not divided into distinct or separate parts

* infest; infect

infest = to inhabit either as a parasite or in menacingly large numbers; infect = introduce a disease into an organism

* ingenious; ingenuous

ingenious = clever; ingenuous = innocent

* principal; principle

principal = main; principle = tenet

* prescribe; proscribe

prescribe = impose authoritatively; proscribe = prohibit

* complement; compliment

complement = supplement appropriately or adequately; compliment = praise

* pediatric; podiatric

pediatric = children; podiatric = feet

* prognosis; prognosticate

prognosis = forecast probable course of a disease; prognosticate = prediction or prophecy

Source: Garner’s Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition)
Update (based on SI readers’ comments):

* brake; break (has multiple meanings but we will refer to the most common ones here)

brake = device to stop motion, to stop; break = to separate into parts, to violate, stroke of luck

* career; carrier

career = profession for which one trains, go at top speed; carrier = one that carries, bearer, container, individual or organization engaged in transporting people or goods for hire

* tortuous; torturous

tortuous = full of twists and turns; torturous = pertaining to torture

4 Responses to "Horribly Confusing English Words"

  1. boopalanj   May 18, 2009 at 2:02 am

    Good.. One of the useful posts 😉

  2. kreacher   May 18, 2009 at 3:46 am

    Some more:
    * tortuous, torturous
    * affect, effect (and the use of effect as a verb)
    * thrifty, spendthrift
    * elevate, alleviate
    * prodigy, prodigal (I still haven’t been able to figure out if “The Prodigal Daughter” was aptly named)
    * prosecute, persecute
    * inflammable, non-flammable

    SearchIndia.com Responds:


    We’ll add the above words to the list along with their meanings sometime today or tomorrow.

    We’ve seen seemingly well-educated people confuse affect and effect while writing.

    BTW, we’ve read Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer but can’t remember the details. All we can remember is that the book is a sequel to Kane & Abel, a fairly decent read.

  3. Ænima   May 18, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I don’t know about others, I used to confuse indigenous with ingenuous and disingenuous.. so I completely stopped using all those words.

    Some people even confuse Ænima for Enema.. it is not the same thing, people.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    We’ll add disingenuous later today.

  4. Ænima   May 21, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Did you mangle the original post when updating this? hope your boss didn’t notice this horrendous mistake!

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Yes, the boss noticed and docked our pay.

    Thanks. Fixed now. 🙂

    Will update the post again later today with more examples.

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