Vocabulary in English

Confusing English words: 10 words you thought had the same meaning (part 2)

Confusing English words: 10 words you thought had the same meaning (part 2)

As I’ve probably said before, I love it when you ask me questions.

If you ask questions, it means you’re going to learn more.

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about words with similar meanings. Some words in English seem to mean exactly the same thing.

But they don’t.

In fact, there aren’t any two words in English that have exactly the same meaning all the time.

Remember — words are like people. Sometimes two people have a lot in common, but sometimes they still like spending time with different people and doing different things.

For example, do you know the difference between “sick” and “ill”?

A lot of the time they mean the same thing. But when we use them with different words or put them in different situations, they start to take on a new meaning.

Confusing English Words: Sick and Ill Venn Diagram

So here are ten confusing English words that you thought had the same meaning — but don’t!

Through, Via and By

Question from Chen

These three words have very similar meanings and are often used the same way.

They all describe ways of doing things.

Through my research (or via my research), I saw them used in the same ways:

He wants to achieve this through diplomatic means (ways).

The object was found via geolocation.

They will achieve this by better use of patient data.

When they’re different

Of course each one has its own special features that make it a little different from the others:

Through

people walking through a tunnel

We use “through” to describe going from one end of something (space or time)  to the other:

The train went through the mountain.

The bullet went straight through his heart.

He’ll be working through the night.

Via

This is a cute, Latin word and has become more popular in recent years. This is probably because it’s very short and easy to say. (And it sounds good. Doesn’t it sound good?)

“Via” is commonly used to give credit to a company or a photographer on a website:

Photo via getty.com

Statistics via CNN

By

So although “through,” “via” and “by” are used to describe ways of doing things, “by” has an extra special use.

We can use it with an action to describe how something was done:

He did it by working 24 hours a day.

How did he become president?
Not by being polite. That’s for sure.

But by far the most common use of “by” is in the passive. It answers the question “who did the action?”

He was arrested by the local police force.

Or we can add it after nouns:

There was a big recruitment drive by Microsoft.

I’m reading a book by Dickens.

Look and Seem

Question from Friba

This is a very common confusion because most languages simply use “seem” to mean “look” or “look like.”

The solution here is quite straightforward (simple):

The Rule! "Look" is for appearances; "seem" is general

When they’re the same

They’re actually never exactly the same, though “seem” is very general, so it contains the meaning of “look.”

Here’s a Venn diagram that shows how it works:

Confusing English Words: Look and Seem Venn Diagram

Of course, when we’re speaking about abstract things (like a situation), we can use both “seem” and “look”:

The situation doesn’t seem good.

The situation doesn’t look good.

When they’re different

To show the difference, I’d like to introduce you to Chuck:

a very scary looking man

We take one look at Chuck and we want to run away immediately. He looks EVIL!!!

But then we start talking to him:

Yes. And at the weekends, I look after homeless dogs.

OK. We’ve only just met him, so we can’t decide yet, but he actually seems quite nice. I mean — he looks after street dogs! That’s a nice thing to do…

No and Not

Question from Giulia

Although this seems like a simple question, there are situations when it’s not totally clear which one to use.

But first let’s look at the general rule:

The Rule! "No" makes nouns negative. "Not" makes everything else negative.

When they’re the same

Although they have the same meaning, we only use “no” and “not” in exactly the same way with the word “good.”

We can describe something as “not good” (which follows the grammar rule above) or “no good” (which doesn’t).

When they’re different

This depends on what we’re trying to make negative. But here are the general rules:

Use no before a noun to make it negative:

I can’t believe it! We’ve got no food for the giraffe!

Use not after a verb to make it negative:

We’re not going to do that again.

He didn’t think about his actions properly.

Use not before everything else to make it negative only in short phrases:

Where’s Jenna?
Not here.

What do you think of my hair?
Not much.

If we want to use these in a sentence, it’s much more natural to make the verb negative:

I think not much of your hair.

I don’t think much of your hair.

Shake, Shiver and Tremble

Question from Alex

These words have a lot of power to them. They can produce a strong image and bring up strong feelings.

When they’re the same

All of these words actually just mean “to move back and forth quickly.”

They also all use the same preposition:

Shake with + noun

Tremble with + noun

Shiver with + noun

So what’s the difference? Well it’s all about what causes the shaking…

When they’re different

Take a look at this Venn diagram:

Confusing English Words: Shake, Shiver and Tremble Venn Diagram

As you can see, each word becomes more and more specific. Let’s start with the most general.

Shake

We can use “shake” for any situation. You can shake from fear, from cold, from frailty (being weak), or from excitement or stress.

Another big difference between “shake” and the other two words is that “shake” can be used with an object.

So, either something or someone can shake:

The room shook during the earthquake.

…or we can also shake something:

Don’t shake the bottle of soda. You’ll regret it.

And of course we have the common phrase “to shake hands.”

Because you can use it in any situation, when you’re not sure which word to use, use “shake.”

Shiver

However, if you want to be more specific, it’s good to use one of the more specific words.

“Shiver” produces more feeling and emotion.

The most common use of “shiver” is when we talk about being too cold:

After waiting for two hours in the snow, he started shivering.

But it can also be used in the same way as “tremble”…

Tremble

“Tremble” is the most specific of the three words. When we hear it, we usually think of being scared. We can also think of being old and frail (weak):

He trembled with fear after seeing Chuck. Then saw that Chuck was actually a nice guy.


So as you can see, there are some words that have the same meaning some of the time. But, like people, no two words are exactly the same.

Are there any other confusing English words that you have problems with? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to tackle (deal with) them in a future blog post.

14 thoughts on “Confusing English words: 10 words you thought had the same meaning (part 2)

  1. Hello Gabriel!
    As always, your post are useful and helpful, ’cause help me a lot to clear my doubts and sound more natural – which I love-.
    I’ve this question for you, what’s the main difference between “heaven” and “sky” and how/when should I use them?. I’ve saw them in several songs and movies.

  2. Thank you for your detailed explanation. I have grasped these concepts much better with your post. I would like to ask about when to use the endings ‘ic’ or ‘ical’: the difference between economic/economical, electric/electrical, politic/political, historic/historical, biologic/biological, logic/logical, classic/classical and so on. Thanks.

  3. Your blog is always important.
    I’ve got many words :
    to and for
    late and past
    in time and on time
    large and big
    begin and start
    one another and each other
    specially and especially
    yet and already
    And when talking about what I like, how do I say it? should I say my likes, my likings, or what else?

    1. Hi Paulo.

      Those questions are really good. Some of them have already been asked to us so I’m already planning to write about them, but some of them are new to us and, in fact, I hadn’t thought of them before. Thanks! I’ll definitely write about them.

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