10 Common Difficult Words in English


Esta semana les tenemos un texto en inglés escrito en colaboración con Ryan Sitzman, maestro de inglés residente en Costa Rica. Este artículo habla sobre los errores más comunes que hacemos los hispanoparlantes al hablar inglés.

By Ryan Sitzman.

In the movie "The Princess Bride," there is a character named Vizzini who continually says the word "Inconceivable!"

After Vizzini says "Inconceivable!" many times, another character named Inigo gets frustrated and says, "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

When I talk with my students, I often think that same thing. My students speak really good English, but there are always a few errors that get through. That's OK, since it's all part of the learning process. Still, it's good to identify those errors and work on correcting them. That's what this article is about.

Today we'll look at the top 10 words and phrases that cause the most problems for my students. A few of them are just strange words, but most of them are what's called false friends. Those are words that look similar in two languages, but really have different meanings.

A famous example of a Spanish-English false friend is éxito and exit. They look really similar, but they mean completely different things. Which actually brings us to number 10 in our countdown!

10. Success

This is actually the English word for éxito in Spanish. It is a noun. The action is "to succeed" (which is also confusing for Spanish speakers, because suceder is another false friend that means "to happen" in English). The adjective is "successful" and the adverb is "succesfully."

Example: One key to success in today's business world is being able to speak English. If you can succeed and pass your English courses, you'll have a better chance of successfully finding a job.

9. Make and Do

We could write an entire book about how to use these two words. It's very difficult to give a complete rule, but usually, we use the word "do" for general actions, and we use the word "make" if there is an observable result. The only problem is that there are many exceptions. So here are some common phrases that you should know:

Examples with "make": make food, make a decision, make a promise, make an effort, make a mess

Examples with "do": do something, do nothing, do anything, do well, do the dishes, do the laundry

8. Resume

This is confusing because it looks like resumen in Spanish. Resumir is "to summarize" in English, when you take something big and make it less complicated.

In English, "to resume" is to start something again that you interrupted. For example, if you play a video game, you can pause it to eat dinner and then resume it later.

You may also see the word "résumé." Even though it has accent marks, it's English! It's a document that contains your personal information when you're looking for a job (currículo in Spanish).

Example: John stopped looking for a job when he got sick last year. Now he wants to resume the search, so he has been updating his résumé.

7. Professor and Teacher

My students often call me "professor" or "teacher," as in "Teacher Ryan." It's not correct, though.

In English, a professor is a person who has a PhD (a doctorate degree) from the university. I don't have that, so I'm not a professor.

I am a teacher, but we generally never use the word "Teacher" as a title in English. You can say Mr./Mrs./Miss plus the person's last name, but not "Teacher," and not with a first name.

6. Canopy

I don't know if this is a problematic word where you live, but it causes a lot of confusion in Costa Rica (where I live). Here there are tour companies that offer a "canopy tour," but it's not really correct.

The correct word here is a "zip-line," and the action is "to go zip-lining." That's when you wear a harness and ride down a cable, often in the middle of a jungle. It's a fun adventure activity.

"Zip" is a word that means to move quickly, and it's also the sound that zip-lining makes.

The word "canopy" is used to describe the top of a tree or forest, so that's probably where the confusion comes from.

5. College

A "college" in English is basically the same as a university (at least in American English).

In Spanish, a colegio is a combination of a junior high school or middle school, plus a high school. Generally students attend a colegio from 6th grade to 11th or 12th grade.

4. Actual

If you mean "right now," then the word you want to say is "current" (actual in Spanish). That's the adjective, and the adverb is "currently."

If you want to express a contradiction, then you can say "actual" or "actually."

Example 1: I am currently an English teacher, but in the past I was a bus driver.

Example 2: John: Is Maria still here?   Helen: Actually, she's not. She just left about 5 minutes ago.

3. Consider

When my students use this word, it's not 100% wrong, but it does seem strange.

If you "consider" something, then you think about it for a long time or very carefully. But normally you wouldn't say it to express an opinion. For that, you can just use the words "think" or "believe."


Student: What do you think I should do to improve my English?  

Teacher: I think you're doing very well, but let me consider a few ideas and talk to you again tomorrow.

2. Advise and Advice

This is a bit confusing.

First of all, "to advise" is a verb, and "advice" is a noun. But unlike in Spanish, it's not a countable noun. So you can't say "an advice." Instead, you should say "some advice" or "a piece of advice."

Example: Let me give you a piece of free advice: study these words, since they may be on the exam later!

1. Say and Tell

This is probably the most common vocabulary mistake my students make, but it's actually easy to correct and explain the difference.

If you use the word "say," the next element should be some information.

If you use the word "tell," the next element should be a person's name.

Examples: Say hello to your brother. =  Tell your brother I said hello.


Let's do a quick summary paragraph to use some more of these in context. Here's some advice an English professor at the university might tell you:

If you take the time to consider which of these words cause you problems and you study a lot, you can probably fix these problems successfully. Actually, it doesn't take too long, and you can probably zip right through them. Good luck!

Posted on December 14, 2015 .