John Larrysson's Column: Confusing Words

Long ago I started making a list of words people confused. To be fair I only collected words from people who should know better. These included English teachers (local and NET), but focused on year co-ordinators, English panel heads, head teachers, government officials, politicians, broadcasters and other important people. When I began, I had no idea how I would use the list. However in September 2012, I started publishing them as an addition at the bottom of these articles. (

Many of these words are pronounced the same, but spelled differently. Others are pronounced differently but spelled the same. Some just had similar spellings, pronunciations or easily confused meanings.

One of these many confusions is the see / sea problem. These words used to be pronounced differently, but got messed up by the Great Vowel Shift. That was when Early Modern English was being created and the pronunciation of long vowels changed. Some spellings did not change to match the new pronunciation.

It is difficult for students to learn the language when even those around them make mistakes. But the English language is so full of irregularities that mistakes are easy. Britain has been the subject of a series of invasions. Each remade the language. From this ability to easily change also comes the solution to the English language's problems. As English spreads, becoming a default global language, it will change. Words from other places will get added. Also some difficulties will get smoothed out as second-language learners simplify the language.

I do not mean to embarrass any well-meaning person that has made an effort to learn English. We who are teaching and leading others must be careful of our own language use. Of course we will make mistakes. Everyone does.

Careless mistakes can be made in Chinese. In one case a mistake, by Chinese teachers, was on a large school banner. I asked why the character looked different. As a result, I was sent up a ladder, using my pocket knife, to cut the extra line out of the offending character.

It is important not to let pride get in the way of our teaching. We can pretend that the mistake was on purpose to see if the students noticed. But we must make the correction one way or another. We teachers must not insist that our mistakes are correct, rather than admit fault.

During the time this list ran in Ming Pao some additional words got added. They are included here as a final Confusing Words entry [click here].

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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