Tricky English Vocabulary: Commonly Confused Verbs

Let’s face it: Typos happen to everyone. When you’re writing your TOEFL essays on test day, making one or two small spelling mistakes or typing errors probably won’t affect your score. However, once they start to change the meaning of your sentences, these little errors can start adding up big-time. While your scorers won’t know whether you’re saying “see” or “sea” in the speaking section, they will definitely be able to read the difference in your essays. Learning to distinguish between some of English’s trickier verbs, many of which are homonyms, or words that sound like other words, can make a big difference on test day.

One set of verbs that even native English speakers often misuse is to lay vs to lie. The similar sounds, as well as the similar–but not identical–past tenses (laid vs lain), and the fact that the past tense of “to lie” is “lay,”  make this verb all the trickier. If you’re going to use either of these verbs in your essay, remember that if you’re talking about placing something somewhere, or putting something somewhere, you’re talking about laying it. For example, “My sister always lays her coffee cup down without using a coaster.” However, “My sister decided to lie down after dinner.” In the first case, we’re conjugating “to lay.” In the second case, however, we’re actually conjugating “to lie.” See? Tricky.

Not all tricky verbs are tricky for the same reason. A lot of the time, writers confuse a word that is a different part of speech for the verb that it sounds like. It sounds complicated in theory, but in practice, it’s extremely common. Don’t believe me? How about affect vs effect? “Affect” is a usually a verb, while “effect” is usually a noun. For example, “That movie affected me deeply,” vs “That movie had a profound effect on me.” Be careful, though, because in less-common scenarios, “affect” can be a noun meaning the visible influence of emotions on behavior, and “effect” can be a verb, meaning “to bring about” (sorry!) We can therefore correctly write that “Her affect was good throughout the film,” meaning that she seemed well, or that “The movie effected change throughout Hollywood,” meaning that it caused Hollywood to change.

Some other common errors include:

  • Allowed (verb)  and aloud (adjective)
  • Fined (verb) and find (also a verb!)
  • Filled (verb) and filed (similar in spelling, different in pronunciation)
  • Passed (verb) and past (noun)
  • Read (verb) and red (noun)

The best way to distinguish between these tricky verbs is to identify which ones you’re using incorrectly and then use it in a variety of (written) sentences. It’s hard to forget that threw is a verb meaning to propel something through the air, while through is a preposition, when you’ve written sentences stating that Tommy threw the ball to Jennifer, Lucy threw her dishes in the sink, and Bob threw his paper in the recycling bin. In the long-term, reading a lot is the best way to truly distinguish between these words; in the short-term, practice will make perfect before test day.


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