Those Confusing English Words

Image courtesy of stockimages/

Image courtesy of stockimages/


Speaking English is often easier than writing or reading it. However, if you should pronounce English words as they are written, you may have some unusual results and may be misunderstood. For example, a friend of mine whose first language is Bulgarian pronounces the car ‘Buick’ like the word ‘quick,’ resulting in the sound of ‘bwick’ when it actually is pronounced ‘bew-ick.’ While this was a humorous mistake and we had a laugh over it, typically we prefer to say things correctly when speaking another language.

First off, we must make it clear that we are talking about American English here. British English has a few other pronunciation and spelling variations. Some examples include: color (American English) and colour (British English); gray (American English) and grey (British English).

Why is English so confusing with its spelling? One must go back to its roots that are as numerous as those on a tree. English has its origins in many languages. It is hardly a phonetic language so the words are not necessarily pronounced like they are written as in Spanish or Indonesian.

One source of confusion is silent letters. The word, ‘light’ is a good example. Light can mean: 1. form of energy that makes it possible for us to see things; 2. the brightness from the sun or other source; 3. weighing less. The ‘g’ and ‘h’ are both silent. However, if we were to get rid of them, we would have ‘lit’ which then would be pronounced with a short ‘i’ sound such as in ‘dig.’ For it to sound like the original word, we would have to add an ‘e’ to it to make the ‘i’ a long vowel sound and it would look like this: ‘lite.’ This spelling now has a different meaning of ‘less calories.’

Another source of confusion is homophones or words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. One that immediately comes to mind is deer (the animal) and dear (something precious), or naval (pertaining to the navy or sea) and navel (your belly button). A complete homophone list can be found on

There are vowel combinations that vary widely. For example, -ough can be pronounced with many different sounds:

  1. Thought – ‘thawt’
  2. Though – ‘tho’
  3. Through – ‘threw’
  4. Enough – ‘enuf’

Or there are consonant combinations that sound like another letter entirely such as the ‘ph’ in ‘phone’ is an ‘f’ sound, so it sounds like ‘fone’ or the ‘ch’ in chord is a ‘k’ sound, so it is pronounced ‘kord.’

If this doesn’t make your head hurt already, then one must contend with contractions or shortened versions of two words combined like when do not becomes don’t (the words are combined, the ‘o’ is replaced by an apostrophe and the word is now one syllable instead of two). Contractions are numerous and include some of the most commonly mistaken words even for native speakers of English, such as its (pronoun) versus it’s (a contraction of ‘it’ and ‘is’); and their (pronoun) versus there (adverb) and they’re (contraction of ‘they’ and ‘are’).

Next is spelling itself – those little nuisances that trip up even the most proficient of English speakers. Many rely on spell check on word processing programs or on phones. While these will catch a majority of errors, we are familiar with the occasional times when these, too, are wrong based on the context of the message. Sometimes the program simply is not sure of what you want to say and ‘guesses’ at it. A clever poem regarding spell check from Louisiana Tech University Liberal Arts, author unknown, sums up the experience.

However if you want to make sure you get it right without relying on spell check, a List of the 100 Most Often Misspelled Words in English, offers a handy review including helpful mnemonics to aid in memory. If you can’t find them on that list, try the list that Oxford Dictionary has compiled. Among the most commonly misspelled words are: apparent, believe, congratulations, bureaucracy, jewelry, license, preferred, and separate.

For more help with spelling, Oxford Dictionaries also offer spelling rules and tips for better spelling. And if you’d like to quiz yourself on how you are doing, you can try out the online quiz or the multiple-choice test from Business for words commonly used in American business.

Which words do you find the most confusing when speaking or writing American English?


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype


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