Anguish caused by English
In a previous article, we discussed the concept of homonyms, and their two categories of word sets (homophones and homographs). However, homonyms can be a difficult concept to understand, especially when two homonyms have a similar, but crucially different meaning. In this article, we’re going to take a look at some of the most commonly confused words in the English language to help you out. (Btw, anguish means to be severely stressed!)
They’re, There, Their
What would this article be if we didn’t briefly mention the classic trio they’re, there, and their. They are probably the most commonly used and confused set of words, even by native English speakers! The most annoying aspect of this set of words is the fact that their pronunciation is identical among all three of the words, and that they are so common in any English text. For this reason, they are the most important set of words to understand first. Oh, and on top of that, there also has two different meanings! Before this gets too confusing, let’s explain what each of these words mean and how you are able to recognise and distinguish them.
They’re is probably the easiest one to understand and recognise. They is a word used to refer to a multiple amount of people or nouns.
“I have two friends. They have the same birthdays, what a coincidence!”
In this example, they refers to the two friends. If the word they is used in conjunction (in combination with) the word are, which is a present form of the verb ‘to be’, it gets combined with they to become they’re. You are probably familiar with the combination of you and are which becomes you’re, and we are becoming we’re. The ‘-re’ refers to the verb are. Therefore, if you ever come across a word containing ‘-re’, it always refers to a form of pronoun + to be.
“Remember my friends with the same birthdays? They’re eating cake together!”
There has two meanings. Possibly its most common use is to mean something that exists in another place away from here, as in over there. To remember this meaning, note that there means it’s not here, it’s there. (not + here = there). The other way to use ‘there’ is as a pronoun in order to introduce a new word or topic: “There once was a prince”.
“Your car keys are not here, maybe they are over there”
“There is only one thing on the prince’s mind: saving the princess”
Their is perhaps the most difficult to explain, and you’ll just have to know it. However, understanding why the last two examples (they’re and there) are the way they are will make it easier to recognise their. Their is the possessive pronoun of a multiple or unidentified third person; it belongs to them. “That is their car”, “The car belongs to them”.
“Their cat climbed in the tree, and now he is stuck!”
Its and It’s
This one is also difficult as the definition of the two versions of the word are quite contrary to what you might expect. You might already know that the addition of the ‘-s’ in the examples John’s car or Melissa’s umbrella is possessive (the car belongs to John, the umbrella belongs to Melissa). Also when we replace the names with other nouns, such as museum or theater, the same is still true (“The museum’s exposition”, “The theater’s play”). However the exact opposite is true with its and it’s. With these two versions of the word it, its is possessive such as in this example: “This car’s leather seats are its best feature”. It’s, on the other hand, indicates the contraction between the words it and is, just like when the words where and is becomes where’s.
So, its: it belongs to someone, or something.
“The book is great, but the slow story is its biggest flaw”
It’s = it is.
“I didn’t do it! It’s his fault!”
Affect and Effect
These two words are often misunderstood and confused as well. No wonder, as their definitions are actually closely related to each other, and only a small difference separates them. The major difference, and the best way to recognise them in a sentence, is that they are two different categories of words. Effect is a noun, and it refers to some way in which something has changed (and is thus a result of a change). Affect is a verb, and describes how something is actively being changed (and is thus a way to alter or influence its current situation). They are often easy to distinguish when you replace them with a synonymous word; a word that is different in writing but has the same meaning.
“The main effect of the flood is that many people ended up homeless”
“The main result of the flood is that many people ended up homeless”
“The flood affected people in many different ways”
“The flood influenced people in many different ways”
Note that in these two examples, effect takes the place of a noun, and affect takes the place of a verb.
Farther and Further
These are also two words loosely containing the same definition, but with a very subtle difference. Both the words farther and further relate to distance. In this instance, farther refers to a physical distance, and further refers to a metaphorical distance. A metaphor is a figure of speech, something that does not necessary relate to any two physical items, but in this instance may relate to two goals or desired states of being that lie apart from each other through barriers of action or achievement.
“I have never traveled farther than my own continent”
“I have come a lot further in my professional development since I started working”
In this example, farther refers to a distance between two points: the point of home, and the farthest distance that was once traveled. Further refers to a progression in personal development, which cannot be defined as any two points in physical space.
Everything and Anything
There are many more examples beyond there, their, and they’re, it’s and its, affect and effect, or farther and further, but a nice example to round off this list would be to talk about the differences between everything and anything. For this example, the same principles apply for everywhere and anywhere.
Everything refers to all things, without exception or exclusion, that are affected by the situation. For example, “He used everything to fix his bicycle, but it just wouldn’t work”. Everything refers to the fact that all methods, tools, or otherwise available actions were used in attempting to fix the bicycle, but it didn’t work.
Anything, on the other hand, refers to any one thing, whether available or not, but not referring to all things combined. If we say “He can fix his bicycle with anything”, it refers to the ability to use any one item, without needing all of them, to fix his bicycle. It doesn’t matter what methods, tools, or actions are available, any one of them can be used to fix the bicycle.
There’s a lot more where that came from
As mentioned, there are many more of these examples, and explaining all of them would require writing an entire dictionary dedicated to these words and phrases. These five examples are simply the most common, the ones you’ll see pop up in any article at least once. The best way to learn more of these confusing words is to expand your vocabulary and carefully examine the specific meaning and situation in which these words can be used. Here’s a tip, when you learn a new word, look up (on the internet) if there are any words that are closely related to it, and note the subtle differences between their definitions. Good luck!
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