What is it that makes a word tricky? Is it the fact that it’s funny and hard to pronounce, like discombobulate? Or is it the fact that it has many meanings, like the verb to set? Irregular verbs are, by their nature, tricky little words and they have to be learned by heart. Compound words can be tricky as well. For an English language learner, a person who’s yet to discover all the rules and rhythms of the language, some of the trickiest words to learn are tricky simply because they are confusing.
Lie, Lay, Lain
To lie is as tricky as verbs can get. It’s an intransitive verb, so it cannot have a direct object, and it means “to recline.” Lie is tricky because its past tense, lay, looks the same as the transitive verb to lay. To lay has a similar meaning (“to put down”), but because it is a transitive verb, it requires an object. So, you can say:
And you can say:
But you can’t say:
Beside and besides are two commonly confused prepositions. Beside is used to determine a spatial relationship between two objects:
Besides can be used as a preposition and as a linking adverb. If used as a preposition, it means “in addition to”:
If used as a linking adverb, besides means “also:”
Discrete and Discreet
Here’s a tricky pair of words for you. Discrete and discreet are homonyms, words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings.
Discrete means separate or distinct:
Discreet has a sneakier meaning, having to do with privacy and not attracting too much attention:
There, They’re, and Their
It wouldn’t be fair to speak about homonyms and not mention the most famous trio among the commonly confused and misspelled homonyms in the English language—there, they’re, and their. There is an adverb, they’re is a contraction of they are, and their is a pronoun. When used correctly, they look like this:
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is probably the most recognizable usage of the pronoun whom. Given that it’s the title of a famous novel, and that it’s been used as a title for a well-known song, one would think that it would suffice to remind us when to use who and when to use whom. But it gets tricky for English language learners. Even those who speak English as their first language sometimes don’t get it right.
Who is a subject pronoun, and it is used in a sentence like this:
Whom is an object pronoun, and it is used in a sentence like this:
Everyone is not a particularly tricky pronoun to use. When you want to say something about a whole group of people, you use it like this:
The tricky part comes when everyone is separated into every one because then it changes its meaning from “the whole group” to “every discrete member of the group.” It can seem a subtle difference, and that’s what makes it tricky. Here’s how every one looks in a sentence:
Affect (and Effect)
There’s no shortage of commonly mistaken homonyms—affect and effect are another pair. And both of them are tricky in their own right because both can be used as a noun or a verb, although affect is more commonly used as a verb and effect is more commonly used as a noun.
To affect means to influence, and it allows you to say something like:
Effect, on the other hand, means something that comes about as a consequence of something, so:
When used as a noun, affect refers to the outward appearance of someone experiencing an emotion:
When used as a verb, effect often appears with the word change and means “to cause”:
Definitely and definitively are not tricky to learn and use, but they are misused to such an extent that it can cause a problem for an English language learner, especially one who likes to read stuff on the web.
Both definitely and definitively are adverbs. Definitely means “certainly,” “clearly,” or “without any doubt”:
Definitively also means “clearly,” but it has an air of conclusiveness:
Noticed something strange? We hope you did, because your’s, simply put, does not exist. You might see it from time to time, but it’s nothing more than someone’s spelling mistake.
But yours does exist, and it’s a possessive pronoun we use when we want to replace your and a noun. So we can say:
And we can also say:
We’re finishing with yet another pair of commonly confused homonyms: than and then. Than is a conjunction we use when we want to compare two or more things:
Then is an adverb. Depending on its use, it means “at the time” or “afterward”: