Confusing Words: Shades of Meaning

Students have a tough time with certain confusing words. We’ve looked at perplexing prefixes, and pesky parts of speech. In this final installment we will look at:

Shades of Meaning

Many words have similar meanings. To choose from some of these tricky words, we must learn the subtle differences between them and select the one that will convey the right idea to the reader.


The difference between among and between has nothing to do with number, as is sometimes alleged. Among tends to be a little more vague, referring to collective relationships: “This opinion predominated among the members of the committee.” Between is more specific, referring to one-on-one relationships: “Many close and lasting friendships were formed between members of the committee.”


Can expresses ability: “Can I see your house from here?” May grants or requests permission: “May I see the inside of your house?” It may also suggest possibility: “I may stop by your house later on.”


When referring to seats of governments, the capital is the city: “Washington, D. C., is the nation’s capital.” The capitol is the building: “The Capitol building is in Washington, D. C.”


Continual indicates that an event occurs frequently, but intermittently: “The dog barked continually that week.” Continuous implies nonstop activity of some sort: “The dog had barked continuously since the time they arrived.” Thus, it would be incorrect to use the word continuous to describe a regularly occurring event. “Independence Day has been celebrated as a federal holiday continuously since 1938” would suggest that every day is Independence Day. In this case, neither word is ideal; annually would be a much better choice.


Both words indicate distance, but there is a slight difference in their application. Farther refers to real physical or geographical distance: “He walked farther down the street.” Further refers to distance in an abstract sense: “After the quarrel, he distanced himself further from his former companion.”


These two words can describe the same event from different perspectives. Imply is from the speaker’s or writer’s perspective: “He implied that matters were quickly coming to a head.” Infer is from the listener’s or reader’s perspective: “We inferred from his statement that matters were quickly coming to a head.”


In merely suggests position: “He is in the room.” Into implies motion: “He walked into the room.”


Nauseated indicates a state of nausea: “Smelling the old socks made him nauseated.” Nauseous indicates the power to produce nausea: “The smell of the old socks was nauseous.” To quote William Strunk and E. B. White in The Elements of Style, “Do not, therefore, say ‘I feel nauseous,’ unless you are sure you have that effect on others.”

Similar But Different

And then we have the words that are spelled or pronounced similarly but otherwise have nothing in common. These must simply be memorized and mastered.


As a noun, access indicates a means of approach: “Joe was granted access to the records.” As a verb, access indicates the action of approaching: “Joe accessed the records.” Assess is a completely unrelated word, meaning “to evaluate”: “Joe assessed accuracy of the records.”


To complement is to complete or supplement something: “The seasonings complemented the flavor of the meat nicely.” To compliment is to praise something: “They complimented the hostess on her cooking.” Also, do not be confused by the adjective forms of these words. Complimentary means “expressing a compliment,” but this definition can be extended to mean “free”: “The meat came with a complimentary packet of seasonings.”


Council refers to a group of people meeting to consult: “The council discussed the matter at length.” Counsel refers to advice or to the act of advising: “He gave us wise counsel on the matter.” By extension, counsel can also mean “lawyer”: “The counsel for the defense stated his case convincingly.”


Hoard can refer either to the act of hiding away and guarding valuables or to the valuables themselves: “He hoarded his money jealously,” and, “He jealously guarded his hoard of money.” Horde originally referred to a band of Tartar nomads. Time broadened its usage, first to refer to any group of nomadic warriors and later simply to any large group of people: “The frenzied horde descended upon him.”


Immanent is completely unrelated to either imminent or eminent, which have already been discussed. The root of the latter two words is minere, “to jut or project,” while the root of immanent is manere, “to remain.” Thus the sense of immanent is that of remaining within, as in pervading or inherent: “Deism denies that God is immanent in His creation.”


Loose means “slack” when used as an adjective and “make so slack as to release” when used as a verb: “The loose knot gave way,” or, “He loosed the dog at once.” Lose means “fail to keep”: “If the dog gets loose, we’ll probably lose him.”


Pore frequently causes confusion for writers when used as a verb meaning “to be absorbed in.” The sense is that of thoroughly internalizing something: “He stayed up most of the night poring over the documents.” The word pour, on the other hand, simply means “to flow or cause to flow from one place to another”: “He spilled coffee on the documents while pouring himself a cup.”


Principal can refer to either to a sum of money that has been invested or to a person, place, or thing in a leading role. “He could pay the interest, but not the principal,” “He is the principal of the school,” and “The Rio Grande is one of the principal rivers of Texas,” are all correct. Principle refers to a guiding rule: “Lying was against his principles,” “He invented the machine in accordance with the basic principles of physics.”


Set simply refers to putting any object into any specified position: “Set the box on the chair, please.” Sit refers to assuming a particular posture: “Sit on that chair, please.”

  • Add a new section to your grammar notebook titled “Shades of Meaning.”
  • Create a page for each pair of confusing words.
  • On the page you created, write:
    • The word.
    • A simple way to remember the differences between the pair of similar words.
    • A sample sentence using the word.
    • A sentence of your own using the word. (For an extra challenge, try creating a sentence that uses both words correctly.)
  • For an added memory boost, you may also enjoy illustrating the words.

Additional Resources

250 Often Confused Words
More at


Commonly Confused Words
Self-scoring interactive.

Commonly Confused Words
More extensive interactive at Towson University.

Confused Word Practice Test
Interactive for older students from Ashford University.

Commonly Confused Words Worksheets
Great printables from for all levels. The worksheets are listed in level order.

Commonly Confused Words
An extra challenge for older students at Michigan State University.

Notebooking Pages & Printables

List of Commonly Confused Words
Printable and handy reference from St. Louis Community College.

10 Ways to Use Notebooking: #5 Grammar & Spelling

10 Ways to Use Notebooking: #5 Grammar & Spelling
Ideas and resources for creating a grammar notebook.

Drawing & Writing Notebooking Paper {Free Download}
Paper for creating your notebook.

Create a website or blog at