Published 8th March 2017

With over 1 million words in the English language, it’s not surprising that English language learners can sometimes get confused with similar words. However, it’s not only learners who make mistakes: even native speakers are known to use words like your and you’re, its and it’s, too and to inaccurately.

And those are just the simple words. There are loads of more difficult English words that can cause confusion. Here are a few of the most common problematic words for native speakers – make sure you know the differences so you won’t make the same mistakes!

Economic vs economical

Economic refers to the economy or economics, while economical refers to something that is good value for money.

For example:

The TV host will interview the finance minister about the current economic situation.

My new car is fuel-efficient and economical.

Could of vs could have

This is an easy one. Could of doesn’t exist! Could have is a part of a number of different constructions (past modals of deduction or speculation, conditionals), but because of the way we speak and the fact that the have is unstressed, many people change the have to of, which is just plain wrong.

For example:

If I’d known she was going to be there, I could’ve told her myself.

Less vs fewer

This is a confusion based on the difference between countable and uncountable nouns. A countable noun refers to something which can be counted while an uncountable noun refers to something which cannot, usually a liquid or some similar substance. With these different nouns we use different quanitifiers: less with uncountable nouns, fewer with countable nouns. It is surprising how often speakers will get this wrong.

For example:

There were a lot fewer people at the party than I expected.

I have less money than last month.

Lose vs loose

Lose is a verb; loose is an adjective. Seems simple enough but many people get confused, though this may simply be a spelling error rather than a meaning error.

For example:

If you gamble you can lose money.

He has lost weight so his clothes are very loose.

Affect vs effect

Another deceptively simple one. Affect is a verb, effect is a noun.

For example:

The rain might affect the match.

There effects of the storm were clear.

It’s important to realise that English language learners are not the only ones who make mistakes in English. If you are an English teacher, you need to be very aware of your own language usage and make sure you are providing an accurate model for your learners.