Beware! English is Tricky

by Tracy Collins

Many linguists agree that English is one of the most challenging languages to master. Those who hope to learn English as a second language struggle in many areas. Even more surprising is the fact that many natives have some troubles too.

The inconsistent grammar rules may be difficult to understand. However, perhaps more confusing than grammar is the vocabulary.

Let's look at some of the most tricky words and phrases in the English language.

Commonly Confused Words

There are certain words that are commonly confusing for people learning English. Even the native speakers tend to use these words in the wrong context confusing it with a similar one. Though these word are not homophones, they creep into wrong your mind and cling to the phrases where they do not belong. You should pay close attention to differentiate the following words and not let them confuse you.

Beside vs. Besides

Only one letter separates the two words and is crucial for the meaning. Of course, they collocate different.

Also you should note the phrase beside the point used to express that something is not directly relevant to the point. Consequently, the phrase besides the point is incorrect.

Clothes vs. Close vs. Cloths

The words are confused as they are phonetically really close. In the flow of speech you do not differentiate the last sounds and so it can cause mistakes in spelling as well. Besides, the meaning of clothes and cloths are close as well - something connected with the material. Thus, it is important to stress the difference providing meaning and examples:

It's vs. Its

Probably the most commonly confused words among ESL students. Sometimes the apostrophe is ommitted because of simple typo, however sometimes the actual use and meaning of the words are confused. Here you need involve a bit of grammar, to explain the use of apostrophe (it's - short form of it is, where apostrope stands for the ommitted letter) and possessive pronoun (it - whose? - its). Context is useful as well.

Advice vs. Advise

In speech, the mistake is not noticed as the words sound identically. However, they might cause troubles in writing. One should remember that the ddifference is in parts of speech - and then not forget that C is used in noun and S in verb.

Effect vs. Affect

Similar to the previous case, here the words differ not only in the letter but in the part of speech. Consequently, you should just remember the meaning to use them properly.

Accept vs. Except

Though the words are phonetically close, the difference between the two is huge - they belong to different parts of speech, have difference in spelling.

The hint to remember the difference: prefix ex- has the meaning "out of" (exclude, ex-president, expire). Thus, except is the word used to denote something is not included.

Immigrate vs. Emigrate

The difference is actually not in the meaning, because both words denote moving somewhere, changing the country. To remember which is what, one should learn the wrods in pair with the prepositions: immigrate to, emigrate from. Then, The things fall into place.

Desert vs. Dessert

Again the case when one tricky letter may change everything. Of course you would not like to confuse the dry sandy area of land (which is desert) with a sweet food served at the end of a meal (which is dessert). The trick is also in stressing the words: in case of desert the first syllable is stressed, in case of dessert - the last one. Just in case you want to see both in the context

Expresso vs. Espresso

This one may seem funny but a lot of people mistaken the word espresso with expresso. First one stands for the strong cofee drink. The last one doesn't actually exist. The word may have appeared from the associations with existing words 'express' or 'expression'. However, such drink as expresso doesn't exist yet, so if you want to have a cup of strong black coffee - ask for espresso.

Confusing Phrases

Now, let's move from single words to some interesting and tricky phrases.

I could care less vs. I couldn't care less

If you heard the expression I could care less, you should know that it is actually not a phrase but the incorrect use of I couldn't care less. To understand this, let's reveal the meaning. I couldn't care less actually is used to indicate that you do not care at all about something - that's why you could not care less. If you say I could care less the phrase loses initial meaning and actually makes no sense. So, the only use of this phrase is:

You keep explaining me your point but I couldn't care less.

He did good vs. He did well

Everyone know the famous I feel good song, and use do good by analogy. However, it is not correct. In English the verb should be followed by adverb not adjective. In this case, good is adjective, while well is and adverb. The correct phrase will be He did well. You may also say He did a good job. In this case good is used with the noun job so it is grammatically correct.


Idioms are also the phrases that may be tricky, because of their peculiarity to have to have a different meaning than what the individual words would typically suggest. Some of the most confusing idioms include:

English is tricky. The vocabulary make the language challenging to all who speak it. However, knowing these details and understanding the difference between confusing words makes you really fluent language speaker and shows you how interesting the language may be.

About the writer

Tracy Collins is an university instructor and author of the educational site Essay Universe. You can follow her on Facebook and Google+.


Writing systems | Language and languages | Language learning | Pronunciation | Learning vocabulary | Language acquisition | Motivation and reasons to learn languages | Arabic | Basque | Celtic languages | Chinese | English | Esperanto | French | German | Greek | Hebrew | Indonesian | Italian | Japanese | Korean | Latin | Portuguese | Russian | Sign Languages | Spanish | Swedish | Other languages | Minority and endangered languages | Constructed languages (conlangs) | Reviews of language courses and books | Language learning apps | Teaching languages | Languages and careers | Being and becoming bilingual | Language and culture | Language development and disorders | Translation and interpreting | Multilingual websites, databases and coding | History | Travel | Food | Other topics | Spoof articles | How to submit an article


Green Web Hosting - Kualo

Why not share this page:


Learn a Language with gymglish

If you like this site and find it useful, you can support it by making a donation via PayPal or Patreon, or by contributing in other ways. Omniglot is how I make my living.


Note: all links on this site to, and are affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you click on any of them and buy something. So by clicking on these links you can help to support this site.

Get a 30-day Free Trial of Amazon Prime (UK)

If you're looking for home or car insurance in the UK, why not try Policy Expert?