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Commonly misused words in English

Asian man looking confusedThe English language can be complex at times. Apart from sentence structure and tenses, the proper use of words can also get tricky. Even those who think they have full grasp of the language find themselves dumbfounded by the fact that they too are using some words incorrectly.

These commonly misused English words are improperly used in conversations as well as in written form. Once you get acquainted with them, you will be more conscious of their proper use and be able to avoid making common errors.

Fewer and Less

Few and less have different uses even though they basically mean the same thing.

“Less” should be used when something can’t be counted or it has no plural.

  • I have less juice than I had yesterday.
  • She has less energy than her team mate.

“Fewer”should be used with things that can be counted, as well as with plurals.

  • Jenny has fewer medals than Jane.
  • I want fewer apples this time.

More Than and Greater Than

“More than” and “greater than” are antonyms of “fewer” and “less” but are misused just as much. There are two simple rules to obey when using them.

First, use “greater than” when there has been an increase in a single statistic or figure, e.g.:

  • The population of the UK is now greater than 60 million.
  • The number of whales in the Antarctic region is now three times greater than when whaling was legal.

Second, if you are counting things and NOT referring to the number, the population, or any other single statistic, use “more than”, e.g.:

  • There should be more than a dozen cupcakes left after the party.
  • There are more people in California than in New York.

Than and Then

Some people manage to interchange these words too. “Than” is supposed to be used for comparisons and “then” is an adverb that denotes time-based events:

  • My lunchbox is bigger than yours.
  • I walked home and then I did my homework.

There, Their and They’re

“There” can be used as an adverb for specifying a place but it can also be used as an expletive.

  • I was standing there by the corner. (adverb)
  • There is nothing left for you. (expletive)

“Their” is a possessive pronoun.

  • Their backyard is very clean.
  • Their car needs to be fixed.

“They’re” is merely a contraction of “they are.”

  • Sheila and Trevor are buying plane tickets tomorrow because they’re going on vacation next week.
  • The Johnson family just moved next door. They’re probably looking forward to meeting new people.

Your and You’re

“Your” is a possessive pronoun whereas “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.”

  • I saw your red shirt on the floor this morning. You’re very messy.
  • I heard that your husband works for the police. You’re very lucky.

To, too, and two

“To” is a preposition and “too” is an adverb. “Two” refers to the number 2.

  • I’m going to learn English by watching these videos.
  • George is feeling queasy. I think I am, too.
  • There are two knives in the drawer.

What are some other misused words in English? Do you have your own rules for remembering which word to use? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Judene Macariola is an experienced English writer for BroadbandExpert.com, one of the world’s leading internet providers. She takes an interest in writing English tips and tutorials during her spare time.

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Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension?

When you sing along to a song, are you sure you’ve got the right words?

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody contains the line, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?’, but it is often misheard as ‘will you do the banned tango?’

The Police, actually sang ‘When the world is running down, you make the best of what is still around’, not ‘you make the best home-made stew around.’

Amusing, but the point is a serious one. When we listen, there are two sets of processes taking place simultaneously:

1 Meaning building or top down processes

  • Drawing upon knowledge of the world, topic or culture.
  • Understanding literal meaning
  • Selecting relevant information
  • Recognising redundant information
  • Connecting ideas
  • Making inferences

2 Decoding or bottom up processes

  • Identifying sounds
  • Working out where words begin and end
  • Dealing with unknown words
  • Recognising where clauses and phrases end
  • Making use of sentence stress
  • Recognising chunks of language

Over the last few decades, there has been much more emphasis on the first set of processes. We are all familiar with activities where we activate students’ knowledge about a topic, encourage them to make predictions and select or reject the information they hear in order to answer comprehension questions.

And these activities are useful; they just aren’t the whole picture. A good listener is also carrying out the second set of processes, and these decoding processes can be very challenging for the English language learner.

Decoding is made particularly difficult by all the features of connected speech. For example:

‘Will you do the banned tango’ : the final /d/ in ‘banned’ elides into the ‘t’ of tango, making it sound very similar to ‘Fandango’. Especially if you don’t know what a Fandango is (it’s a kind of dance, not as well known as the Tango).

Good listeners are able to use world knowledge (such as what a fandango is), together with ability to decode. If they can’t decode, perhaps because the speaker is inaudible, they can predict from their knowledge of syntax. Given a sentence like ”When the world is running down, you make the best …… ‘, they think about what it is that the person might make the best one of (though stew is a slightly bizarre choice, even if it does begin with the same consonant cluster as ‘still’!)

Recent research, however, suggests that less efficient listeners have to put so much energy into decoding that they can’t use their meaning building skills effectively. They simply can’t hold onto enough of the meaning to make connections between different parts of the text.

So, as well as providing practice of the top down/meaning building skills, there is a clear argument for more listening activities which focus specifically on developing decoding skills, especially at lower levels, where students have more limited vocabulary.

So, after your usual comprehension work, why not try some of the following?

Sounds and weak forms

  • Minimal pair work (coming back into fashion). Learners listen to two words, e.g. ‘pat’ ‘bat’ or ‘pat’ ‘pat’ and say if they are the same or different.
  • Learners look at a transcript and mark the words carrying the main stresses (either as they listen, or they predict the stresses and then listen to check).
  • Play or dictate short chunks, especially formulaic chunks like ‘What do you mean?’ pronounced naturally, with reduced forms, and ask students to write the full forms.
  • Students transcribe a (short) section of a listening text and compare what they have written with the original transcript.


  • Also using a transcript, students mark ‘chunks’ of meaning, either while or before they listen.
  • Play part of the listening text again, stopping halfway through each sentence and asking students to try and remember what comes next. This is nominally a memory exercise, but it will develop ability to predict based on understanding of English sentence structure.
  • Students look at the transcript and pull out groups of words that often go together (formulaic chunks). Then listen to how they sound when pronounced naturally, and even drill them.

Have you tried any of these activities? Have you successfully used any other decoding activities?

Rachael Roberts, teacher trainer and author, discusses the often neglected use of decoding skills in listening comprehension.


Correcting dyslexic spelling

Teacher helping two young studentsIn this guest post, Joanna Nijakowska, author of Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom (2010), explores the difficulty of spelling among dyslexic learners of English, and how the use of the red pen only enforces incorrect spelling.

Spelling mistakes constitute a notorious feature of dyslexic writing. Teachers often highlight or circle the mistakes (especially with a red pen) bringing them to the surface of the text but in that way students focus their attention on and consolidate the erroneous forms instead of learning the correct spelling.

In similar vein, writing the words on the blackboard and asking students to compare them with their own spelling attempts does not work very well with learners with dyslexia.

The occurrence of mistakes is sometimes indicated on the margin in a given line of the text; however, if we do not specify where exactly the mistake is, we make the correcting task much harder for our students with dyslexia.

Another technique is to simply count down the mistakes and give the total at the bottom of the text, often with no indication of the exact position of the mistakes. Unfortunately, even very careful looking at words and searching for mistakes cannot guarantee identifying the misspelled ones, just the opposite, it happens that perfectly well-spelled words get ‘corrected’ mistakenly.

It proves much more effective and less time-consuming to cross the misspelled word and write the correct spelling above or next to it. In that way it is the correct form which is made visible and, hopefully, integrated.

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Preparing for those “Umm….” moments in a Speaking test

Woman looking confusedKathy Gude, author of New Fast Class, tackles the challenge of making Speaking exams that little bit easier for students.

For many students, the Speaking Paper can be a stressful ordeal. Our role as teachers is to prepare and encourage them as best we can. In my experience as an exams teacher and exams course book author, I’ve developed some strategies for making students more comfortable with the whole process. I’ve listed a few of them here. I hope you find them useful.


Because of their perceived unpredictability, tests of speaking and listening put tremendous pressure on the taker, so the more preparation students have, the more they will know what to expect and the more confident they will become. Giving students full-length practice tests under exam conditions before the exam is excellent preparation and will prevent them wasting time during the test checking what they have to do or asking the examiner for clarification. In addition, students will be more aware of how long they need to speak for in each part of the test and what types of tasks they will need to be able to cope with.

Teach them to listen

Students are often unaware that to be a good speaker, you need to be a good listener. Listening carefully to what they have to do, to questions they are required to answer, or to their partner in a paired test, will help students give a coherent and appropriate response to the task in question.

‘Umm…’ moments

Students often find speaking tests unnerving because they worry about not having anything to say. One useful way of dealing with this problem is to give students a range of fillers to use while they formulate their response. This enables them to begin speaking immediately while, at the same time, giving themselves an opportunity to come up with a suitable response. Depending on the students’ level of English, phrases like ‘Well, that’s a very interesting question…’, Let me see…’, ‘I’ve often wondered…’, ‘It’s difficult to say exactly but…’, etc. will prove extremely useful if they can’t immediately think of a reply.

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20 most commonly misspelt words in English

Example of poor spelling.Which words do you think are most commonly misspelt in English? Write down five words you expect to be on the list at the end of this post.

What makes some English words difficult to spell? One source of difficulty is inconsistent pronunciation; many sound out ‘definately’ when they mean definitely (2). And comparatively few outside the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly enunciate separate (1) – more typically the ‘A’ becomes an ‘E’. This problem is most glaring when (many) young people transcribe ‘could have’ as ‘could of’ or a lot (14) as ‘alot’.

In some cases it is an unexpected combination of letters containing few phonetic clues – bureaucracy (11) and manoeuvre (3) are examples here. In both these cases the spelling pattern is literally foreign; French, to be precise. Until comparatively recently a basic knowledge of French was assumed of every ‘educated’ English reader but most now would recognise the word entrepreneur (16) from business rather than the language from which it originates. The same applies to those other providers of hidden spelling rules: Latin and Greek.

An understandable uncertainty as to when ‘C’ rather than ‘S’ applies lies behind consensus (6) supersede (12) conscience (19) and unnecessary (7). There’s a similar confusion over what creates the ‘CK’ sound in liquefy (18), added to the confusion of an ‘E’ in place of the usual ‘I’.

By far the most difficult hurdle for any speller, however, is the dreaded ‘double letter’ dilemma. Two ‘N’s or one? Does two ‘C’s look right? Unnecessary causes double-trouble here to add to its ‘C’ or ‘S’ issues.

Spell-check/Spellcheck (?) will help, of course, which is why many young people delegate the job entirely to that marvellous (two ‘L’s in British English) programme (one ‘M’ and drop the ‘E’ in the US or amongst techies).

Sadly, technology has not yet produced a spell-checking pen for that handwritten application form.

1. Separate

2. Definitely

3. Manoeuvre

4. Embarrass

5. Occurrence

6. Consensus

7. Unnecessary

8. Acceptable

9. Broccoli

10. Referred

11. Bureaucracy

12. Supersede

13. Questionnaire

14. Connoisseur

15. A lot

16. Entrepreneur

17. Particularly

18. Liquefy

19. Conscience

20. Parallel

Source: poll from OnePoll quoted in Daily Telegraph 06 August 2010

Which words do you or your students have most trouble spelling?

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Based on recent research into the most commonly misspelt words in the English language, Kieran McGovern considers why some words are just difficult to spell correctly.