15 Frequently Confused Pairs of Verbs

By Mark Nichol

These similar-looking words below have dissimilar meanings. Make sure you’re using the write one in each pair.

1. Amused/bemused: To be amused is to be entertained; to be bemused is to be confused.
2. Appraise/apprise: To appraise is to evaluate; to apprise is to inform.
3. Ascribe/subscribe: To ascribe is to attach an idea to a source; to subscribe is to hold belief in an idea.
4. Attain/obtain: To attain is to reach; to obtain is to acquire.
5. Barter/haggle: To barter is to trade; to haggle is to negotiate.
6. Born/borne: To be born is to be brought forth; to be borne is to be carried along.
7. Borrow/loan: To borrow is to receive something for temporary use; to loan is to provide something on those terms.
8. Careen/career: To careen is to lean over to one side or to sway; to career is to hurry carelessly. (And to carom is to ricochet.)
9. Censor/censure: To censor is to ban; to censure is to reprimand.
10. Criticize/critique: To criticize is to judge harshly or in a negative manner; to critique is to evaluate.
11. Denigrate/deprecate: To denigrate is to defame or belittle; to deprecate is to disapprove or deemphasize (but can also, like denigrate, mean to disparage).
12. Differ/vary: To differ is to disagree or to be distinct from; to vary is to change (although differ can also refer to variation).
13. Espouse/expound: To espouse is to support; to expound means to state, explain, or defend (which is also distinct from the phrase “expand on,” which means to provide additional or digressive details).
14. Rebut/refute: To rebut is to argue in response to another argument; to refute is to deny an argument.
15. Wangle/wrangle: To wangle is to obtain by underhanded means; to wrangle is to wrestle.

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12 Responses to “15 Frequently Confused Pairs of Verbs”

  • Jeremy

    Thanks for this. Just yesterday, I googled the difference between expand and expound.

  • Allister Havercroft

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve always understood that to refute is to prove or demonstrate the falsity of an assertion, not just deny or reject it. So it’s not too far removed from rebut. Well, that’s the English usage and maybe the American is different.

    I think it’s a useful distinction and it would be nice to try to preserve it – or is it too late?

    One other frequently abused pair is mitigate & militate.

    Allister H.

  • Roberta B.

    How about refute v. repudiate? We alll heard that one recently in the media as refudiate. Using comment above: refute = to prove or demonstrate the falsity of an assertion. repudiate = to reject as having no authority or binding force.

  • Marci D.

    Add to the list for a future article, please:

    Affect/effect (rampant confusion about them both as verbs and nouns)

    Convince/persuade

  • Mark Nichol

    Allister:

    It has both meanings in American English, but unfortunately the simple sense of “denial” is more prevalent.

  • Mark Nichol

    Roberta:

    A similar conflation is flustrated, from flustered and frustrated, which certainly flustrates me.

  • Tom Groff

    Mark,
    I trust you wrote “using the write one” in your lead with ironic intent?

  • hz

    Borrow and loan are interchangeable terms in banking in Australia. A ‘borrow amount’ and ‘loan amount’ for instance, in regards to a home loan, are the same thing.

  • Anne Stewart

    Too often I read “a couple years”, “a couple times”, “a couple pairs”, or some such variation. What has become of our preposition “OF”? Please don’t tell me this is going the same route as “graduate high school”, etc.?

  • Mark MacKay

    Explicate/explain – Explicate describes “meaning” unfolded or slowly revealed. Explain doesn’t tease “meaning.” It defines without hesitation or delay.

  • James White

    I agree with Anne Stewart. Why are prepositions being dropped from phrases? It’s not a couple pairs; it should be a couple OF pairs.

  • venqax

    Anne Stewart & James White: It gets worse. Recently I’ve been driven too drink (well, drink more anyway) over commercials that repeatedly refer to, “one hundred-thousand dollars of life insurance”, or, “a thousand dollars of additional insurance on your car.” When did dollars become a unit of measurement for insurance? What happened to the essential worth of WORTH? Don’t you get so many dollars WORTH of life insurance? Is this additional word too much to say? What other words can I just drop from a phrase? “What time it?”. “How are doing?”. Can I get one dollar of coffee? How about a thousand dollars of damages? A nickel of common sense…

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