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Confusing Words That Even Native Speakers Mess up

12 listopada 2018, poniedziałek,

At the British Council we feel that the word native speaker is a bit old-timey and problematic. It suggests that simply because someone was born in an English- speaking country they will automatically be much better at English than someone who has intensely studied the language over many years. The term ‘expert user of English’ is far more accurate. Someone is either an expert user or not and it doesn’t matter where they were born. However to underline the fact that English native speakers can mess up a great deal in their own language, we are going to show you a bunch of words that are constantly misused in English. We have already talked about the classics like they’re, their, there and two, too and to, but this time we would like to take this to a much higher level of sophistication.

The Past tense of Lay vs Lie

Lie and Lay are connected by the fact that they both reflect the idea of putting something down.  Their main difference LIES in the fact that ‘lie’ is intransitive, meaning that it cannot take an object and ‘lay’ is transitive and does take an object.

Quick grammar review – An object is the part of a sentence that is being affected by the verb.  John hit the ball. – ‘the ball’ is the object.  John slept. – ‘sleep’ cannot have an object.

The pen is lying on the table. (no object)

He lay the papers on the table. (the papers in this sentence represent the ‘object’)

Part of the trickiness is connected to the past simple and participle forms.


Yesterday he lay on the sofa.   He has lain on the sofa and thinks it’s very comfortable.


Yesterday he laid the books on the table. He has laid the books somewhere and can’t find them.

  • When ‘lie’ means ‘to say something which in NOT true’ it becomes a regular verb. LIED / LIED



There is a common belief that irregardless is NOT even a word and can’t be a word because of its weird double negative status: IR- and –less.  Its meaning is simply a synonym of ‘regardless’ meaning without care, concern or warning.  It is recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary as a non-standard word but it is indeed a word, albeit a bit awkward.

Irregardless of how you may feel about him, Justin Timberlake sells a lot of concert tickets.

Less and Fewer

Here is an example of time taking its toll on a language and meaning being affected by misuse and the misuse becoming the accepted norm. A long time ago the word ‘incredible’ meant, quite literally – not to be believed, actually NOT credible. But over time this word has come to mean simply ‘amazing’ or ‘brilliant’. Poor usage has become the dictate of how this word actually came to be used in a new reality as it were.

The same thing is happening with ’less’ and ‘fewer’. For ages the rule had been simple:

  1. Less is used with uncountable nouns
  2. Fewer is used with countable nouns

Both words are the opposite of ‘more’.

I have fewer friends and less time than I have ever had in my life.

In the world of prescriptive grammar those are the rules and that is how these two words are correctly used.  The problem is reality.  Supermarkets display signs suggesting. “This line is for 10 items or less”. More and more people are using it incorrectly and linguists believe that in a relatively short time fewer may disappear completely from the English language.

Unused / Disused

These words are not synonyms! ‘Dis’ is very often used as a prefix to mean ‘not anymore’. Beware, although this is often the case it is not always the case.  In this example it serves that very purpose.  Something that was ‘unused’ has NEVER been used.  Something that is ‘disused’ has fallen out of use or is not being used anymore.

The course book I received was unused.

They held their practice in a disused factory.

Everyday / Every day

Here is another pair of words that are constantly confused by people and the rule is relatively simple.  ‘Everyday’ is an adjective meaning daily, ordinary or standard – I don’t use public transportation in everyday life.

‘Every day’ means Monday – Sunday, each and every day.

Every day I go to my grandmother’s for dinner and she gives me great advice for everyday problems like waking up early and how to prepare for exams.

So there you have a small taste of some of the slightly more sophisticated types of mistakes even the most proficient users of English will make.  I guess every language has its sticky points that cause problems for people.  What about your language? Is there something in particular that you find people doing poorly and that needs to be constantly corrected? Let us know in the comment section.


Komentarze: 5

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  1. Very useful, thank you. Could you equally eloquently explain the difference between each other and one another. No native speaker I know seems to grasp the difference.

  2. Dear Reader,

    You have come to the right place.! The answer is VERY simple.

    ‘Each other’ is binary. Two people can be kind to each other; meaning that EACH person in the pair is kind to the other person.

    ‘One another’ is intersectional meaning that if many people are supposed to be kind to one another, each person is supposed to be kind to every person there is in the group NOT just to a partner or one other person.


    All people on Earth should love ….one another or each other?

    The answer is…. one another.

    *This is often misused and misunderstood but THAT is the true explanation of how these are correctly used.

    Great question.

  3. Thank you very much

  4. Hi Ricky,
    I’m not sure if you’d agree with my comment but here it goes. I think that since dictionaries function as descriptive and not prescriptive linguistic tools, the fact that they list irregardless does mean recommendation for its usage by careful speakers and writers. Merriam-Webster on-line is outright discouraging its usage: ” Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.”

  5. It actually seems that we agree. It is a contentious issue and depending on where you look, you can be told that ‘irregardless’ is either awful or harmless. I don’t use it myself but that doesn’t mean that it should be disregarded as word completely.