commonly confused pairs

5 Commonly Confused Pairs (or is it Pears?)

Just the other day, I was confused by a student who wrote, “I was very boring as I sat in class.” Did the student just confess to being dull? Or did he mean that he was inattentive in the lesson because it was uninteresting? I am sure that it was the second meaning he was referring to, which points to the error of his statement, that instead of writing “I was boring”, he should have written, “I was bored”. What a world of difference this small change makes!

How is this related to the post I am writing today? Well, I am well aware that English is full of homophones, words that sound similar but are spelled differently (case in point: pairs and pears) and those that are identical in meaning so they are easy to misuse (boring vs bored). As such, I am going to share 5 pairs of words that often get many of my students tangled up in webs of confusion. Let’s take a look at them below:


Pair 1: stationery vs stationary

commonly confused pairs

Stationary: To be stationary is to be not moving or not changing like a car or train that has come to a stop

Stationery: ‘stationery’ refers to things that are needed for writing, such as a pen or pencil.

Tip to remembering: The easiest way to remember the difference is to remind yourself that there is an ‘e’ in ‘stationery’ just like there is an ‘e’ in ‘pen’ or ‘pencil’ or ‘eraser’ (which are stationery items). It has worked for me so far and I hope it’ll work for you too!

Pair 2: compliment vs complement

commonly confused pairs

Compliment: A compliment is something you say to express approval, admiration or respect.

Complement: when something complements something else, it is making that something else better when combined with it. For instance, when you compliment someone that her shoes complement her dress, you are telling her that these two items of clothing, when worn together, make her whole outfit more attractive.

Tip to remembering: To make it easier to remember, I tell myself there are 2 ‘e’s in ‘complement’, hence they go together and make the word more attractive (kind of).

Pair 3: disinterested vs uninterested

commonly confused pairs

Disinterested: To be disinterested is to be unbiased or impartial. Not receiving any personal advantage and free to act fairly.

Uninterested: To be uninterested is to be bored.

Hence, it is better to have a disinterested judge at a competition rather than an uninterested one; the former will choose the most deserving winner while the latter might fall asleep before the competition is over. Repeat to yourself: ‘dis’ is good but ‘un’ is bad (and ignore the strange looks other passers-by might give you).

Take note though that “disinterest” (noun) refers to both 1. not receiving any personal advantage and 2. a lack of interest. The noun covers both meanings!

Pair 4: assure vs ensure

Assure vs Ensure

Ensure: To make certain that something will happen

Assure: To tell someone confidently that something is true so as not to cause worry to him or her. For instance, a student assures her teacher that she will score top marks for the test. To ensure that she will get the best grade, the student studies very hard for it.

Tip to remembering: A good way to tell the difference is ‘assure’ is normally found between two people or groups of people, for instance, I assure you, but this is not true for ‘ensure’ (‘I ensure you’ is grammatically wrong).

Pair 5: affect vs effect


Affect: Verb – To have an influence or to cause a change is to affect, for instance, the rain will affect my holiday plan. This means that the rain will influence and change my plan, since there are some things I cannot do in wet weather.

Effect: Noun – ‘effect’ refers to the outcome or result of something, as in, the effect of getting drenched in the rain is getting a terrible headache.

Tip to remembering: Simply put, ‘affect’ is a verb (action) while ‘effect’ is a noun (thing). Therefore, you cannot say, “This will effect my mood” but should instead say, “This will affect my mood” or “This will have an effect on my mood”.

Pop Quiz Time

I have prepared a simple quiz to see if you can tell the difference between these confusing pairs (which I am sure you can!). At any point when you are stuck, remember to use the clues present in each sentence!

I hope what I have shared with you today have made you less confused about how to use these words properly. Leave your comments below and let me know if this post has been useful for you. Have a great week ahead!


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