One of the most significant obstacles for English learners is understanding the many words that sound the same when spoken but have entirely different meanings. When reading the words in their written form, it is much easier to understand the difference.
Accept or except
To accept is to receive something given or passed to you.
- I accept your proposal.
Except, is an exception, exclusion, something not included.
- We are open everyday, except for New Years Day.
Adverse or averse
Something harmful or damaging to a person is considered adverse.
- Breathing in Petrol Fumes is adverse to your health.
Averse refers to an intense dislike or opposition to something.
- I am averse to the new Government proposal.
Advice or advise
When you give someone counsel or a recommendation about what to do this is called, advice.
- When I was young, my father gave me some great advice.
Advise is similar in meaning to advice but more specific to recommending something.
- The doctor advised me to take this particular medicine for my headache.
Affect or effect
Even native English speakers have problems with this one! When something has been changed or made different, it is an affect.
- What I saw there had an affect on me, now I don’t take my life for granted.
The effect is the result or the bringing about of a result.
- The heart transplant had a healing effect.
Aisle or isle
An aisle is a space or passage between the rows of seats.
- The bride looked beautiful as she walked down the aisle.
An isle is usually a smaller island or peninsula.
- Located near England is the famous Isle of Man.
All together or altogether
When many people or many things are in the same place, they are said to be all together.
- They were all together at the party.
Used more in a singular sense, altogether, carries the meaning of something being complete or whole.
- Mike is altogether more intelligent than the rest of his friends.
Always or all ways
Always is like saying every time, all the time.
- He always arrives late to work.
All ways (noun) is rarely used today but means a direction or course that can be followed.
- All ways lead to the city center.
Along or a long
When something moves horizontally, it is moving along.
- The car drove along the highway.
Long (a long) is merely a descriptive way to speak about something of significant length with the article ‘a’ in front of it.
- Can you get me a long rope from the hardware store?
Aloud or allowed
When you hear something, it is aloud, that is you can listen to it. Think of this word as the opposite of silent.
- She prayed aloud to her God.
If something is permitted, it is allowed.
- They were allowed to go to the party.
Altar or alter
An altar is the name of a raised table or platform for religious sacrifices to a God.
- The priest walked towards the altar with the sacrifice.
When you change something, you have altered it.
- I would like to alter my booking for this weekend.
Amaze or a maze
Amaze is to be astonished, surprised, astounded.
- I was amazed at how skilled that street artist was.
A maze is a type of game; it involves trying to get out of a very confusing area with many different passages and dead ends or starting from the outside of the maze and finding your way to the center.
- It took us an hour to find our way out of that garden maze; it was a lot of fun though!
Amoral or immoral
Amoral describes a person or thing that is not concerned with what is right or wrong, that is the moral values.
- Because she acts so selfishly, I think she is amoral.
Immoral is when someone does something that is morally unacceptable to society.
- The buying and selling of people is an immoral practice and should be prevented around the world.
Appraise or apprise
To appraise something means to try and determine how much an item is worth.
- The jeweler appraised the diamond ring I found at over ten thousand dollars!
Apprise means to let someone know about something or update them with information.
- I will apprise the president that the meeting will be delayed for another hour.
Aspire or a spire
To aspire means to try and get something.
- The Football team aspires to win the World Cup.
A spire is a noun and refers to the upper part of a stalk, grass, tree or even the pointy uppermost part of a roof.
- The house was well built and had a spire pointing up in the center of its roof.
Assent or Ascent or Ascend
Assent is the same as agreeing or approving.
- My father will assent to our marriage if you ask him beforehand.
Ascent is what climbers do on mountains; they move upwards as they climb.
- The climber’s ascent was faster than what many expected in such a short time.
Ascend. Similar to ascent it means to move upward but can be used to describe things differently.
- The hot air balloon ascended into the sky.
- He will ascend to power very quickly.
- She ascended the staircase.
Aural or oral
Aural is specific to the ear or hearing.
- Their whispering was aural during the movie.
Oral refers to the mouth and the action of speaking.
- I have good oral habits because I brush my teeth twice a day.
- The oral exam was the most challenging part of the English test.
It is most likely you will come across many other words that sound similar beginning with ‘a.’
However, you will frequently find that the confusion comes simply from the fact that the article ‘a’ has been used to introduce the word following it, just as we saw with the words amaze and a maze.
The key is to listen carefully and exam the context of the sentence. Can you think of any other examples which may be confusing?