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Learn the Difference Between Confusing Words in English

Updated on August 5, 2019
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Dina is a graduate student of English language and literature and Philosophy with vast experience in tutoring and translation.

Learners of English tend to make some common mistakes caused by the phonological and/or orthographic similarity between lexical units.

In this article, I explore some of the most frequent mistakes I encountered when working with my students and try to provide explanations that will help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Learning English can be fun and easy when you learn how to avoid some common mistakes that learners usually make. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.
Learning English can be fun and easy when you learn how to avoid some common mistakes that learners usually make. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

Your vs. You're

"Your" is a possessive adjective that indicates that an object or a person belongs to "you" (second-person-singular or second-person-plural).

Your drawing looks nice.

I brought you your jacket.

Was your sister there?

The drawing, jacket, and sister all belong to "you", whoever that might be.

"You're" is comprised of the pronoun "you" and the contracted version of the verb "are".

Contracted means that the word is shortened by the use of an apostrophe, and the same process can be applied for the verb "to be" for all persons.

When contracted, contracted forms of the verb "be" in the present tense look like this:

I am = I'm
You are = You're
He, she, it is = He's, she's, it's

We are = We're
You are = You're
They are = They're

"You're" does not imply any kind of possession, but rather a current state of the subject "you".

You're beautiful. (=state)

I see that you're busy, so I won't bother you. (=state)

If we use the verb "be" as the main verb, then our sentence is in Present Simple as in the examples above.

If the verb "be" is an auxiliary verb that has a main verb attached to it, then we're dealing with Present Continuous.

When used to form Present Continuous, "you're" indicates either a current action or state of the subject.

You're jumping up and down. (=action)

You're depending on us. (=state; not so frequent)

Pro tip: If it has an apostrophe, it is a contracted form.

Make sure that you don't overgeneralize this rule because apostrophes are used for other purposes as well. For example, "'s" is used to indicate someone's property.

That is Sarah's bike over there.

Its vs. It's

We've already touched upon "it's" briefly in the above section.

"It's" consists of the pronoun "it" and the contracted form of the verb "be" for the third-person-singular, i.e. the verb "is":

It + is = It is --> It's

He said that it's a touchy subject and he doesn't want to talk about it.

It's a rainy day here in New York.

"Its" is a possessive adjective that indicates that something belongs to "it" (third-person-singular).

When the crocodile opened its mouth, I could see its sharp teeth.

I didn't take proper care of my orchid, and its leaves turned yellow.

Their vs. There

"Their" is a possessive determiner.

It means that it precedes a noun and that it denotes a possessive relationship.

"Their" can either indicate that something belongs to "them" (third-person-plural), or to one person whose gender we don't want to explicitly state for some reason, or simply don't know.

Mary and Jake have arrived. Their car is parked in our driveway.

One of the musicians decided to leave their instruments on the floor.

In the first sentence, "their" refers to "Mary and Jake", so it is used to denote plural.
In the second sentence, "their" refers to "one of the musicians", and is used to denote singular.

"There" is an adverb used to refer to a place or position.

I stood there unable to say a word.

Jack says he saw a spider over there.

It can also be used to refer to a metaphorical place, being more similar in meaning to the words "stage" or "period" than to "position" or "place".

I need to stop you right there.

The last important note on the word "there" is that it can be used as a function word to introduce a sentence. Function words have little or no meaning, so when you translate the following sentences don't include "there" in your translation.

There are a lot of kind people who will help you in times of need.

There are many alternatives to plastic.

There is no place like home.

You can try to mentally add the verb "exist" after "there" to grasp the meaning of it better.

There exists no place like home.

Notice that in this case we don't need the verb "be" because it is replaced by "exist".

To make these rules stick, use them as much as you can in real life by communicating with native speakers or other learners. Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash.
To make these rules stick, use them as much as you can in real life by communicating with native speakers or other learners. Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash.

Advice vs. Advise

"Advice" is a noun.

Nouns are words that refer to people, places, or things.

Nouns should usually be preceded by an article if there is no other descriptor of that word. Since "advice" is an uncountable noun, it would be incorrect to use the indefinite article "an" before the word "advice", though it is widely used in informal texts and conversations.

I would like to offer you some advice.

I listened to his advice carefully.

Can you give me a piece of advice on how to solve this?

"Advise", on the other hand, is a verb.

Verbs denote an action, a state, or an occurrence.

"To advise" someone means to offer some advice.

I strongly advise you not to do it.

He advised Sarah against drinking alcohol.

My mother advised that we search for another apartment.

"Advise" has the function of a predicate in a sentence.

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Hope this helped you in your English adventure!

Make sure you leave your questions down below if you have any, and I'll answer them as soon as possible.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Dina Sostarec

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 days ago from Queensland Australia

      Nice work on explaining the different in these words that confuse many people. A good article.

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