This week we’ll be looking at easily misused words; meaning, words that students (and even native speakers!) can easily make mistakes with. Either because there are other words that sound similar, or just because they are naturally difficult, here are some easily misused words.

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Desert and Dessert

The Sahara, the Mojave, the Gobi…desert. An area of dry, barren land, especially one covered with sand and with no vegetation, is a desert. When pronouncing this word, we put the stress on the first syllable. Dessert is the last course of a meal, typically something sweet, like cake or ice cream. The stress is on the second syllable, and note the double ‘s’ in the spelling. One trick to remember: you always want more dessert!

Affect and Effect

Although there are other differences besides the ones mentioned here, we will only talk about the standard usage. ‘Affect’ is a verb, and it means to influence, or to make a difference to something or someone. ‘Effect’ is a noun that means a result or consequence of an action. For example:

~ “The rain affected his chances at the tournament.”
~ “The effect of that law was everyone hating the government.”


Lie and Lay

‘Lie’ can mean to be in a horizontal position. We lie on the sofa, we lie in bed. In this case, the three forms are “lie – lay – lain.” The verb “lie” can also mean to not tell the truth. ‘My dog ate my homework’ is a classic lie that children tell. In this case, the three forms are “lie – lied – lied.”
The verb ‘lay’ means to place something on a surface. We can lay the table, we can lay a pen on the floor. Its three forms are “lay – laid – laid.” Note that the infinitive (and present tense) of this verb and the past simple of the verb ‘lie’ (to be in a horizontal position) are exactly the same. This is where many people will make the mistake of saying ‘lay’ in the present (or infinitive) with the meaning of ‘to be in a horizontal position.’ For example:

~ “I’m tired, so I’m going to lay down for a few minutes.”
~ “She always lays on the sofa when she gets home from work.”

However, this is wrong! We need to say ‘lie’ in these instances, including in both of the sentences above.

Historic and Historical

Both of these words are adjectives. ‘Historic’ means important or influential in history. We can visit a historic building, we can talk about a historic text. It’s important to remember that when we use this word, the thing we’re talking about must be important in history. We will see why when we discuss the next word.
‘Historical’ means anything from history, meaning we use it to refer to anything that happened in the past, or anything from the past. If we say a ‘historical book,’ it simply means that it’s a book from the past, not necessarily significant in history.


If and Whether

We use the word ‘if’ to express a conditional. In other words, we use it to introduce a hypothetical situation, or with the meaning that something is true or will happen ‘on the condition or in the event that.’
The word ‘whether’ is used to refer to alternatives, or to express a doubt. Let’s look at a couple examples:

~ “I will help you if I have time.”
~ “Whether she joins us or not, we are going to the cinema.”
~ “I don’t know whether she’ll join us or not.”

Try the practice exercises!

A. Edstrom

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