“Confused With” and “Confused About”

By Maeve Maddox

Preposition use is tricky. Sometimes a rule can be applied, as in the choice between in and into:

The dog jumped from the bank into the water. (connotes movement from outside to within)

The drowning man flailed in the water. (connotes containment within)

More often, the choice of which preposition to use is idiomatic. That is, speakers use a particular preposition with a certain word because its use has been established by custom.

From time to time, the established preposition is replaced by another. Initially, speakers accustomed to the older form express outrage, but in time, as the old-timers die off, the new preposition achieves acceptance. An example of such a change in progress is the use of excited followed by unconventional for instead of the customary about or by.

A similar change seems to be in progress regarding the expression “confused with.”

The verb confuse, with its participle form confused, has more than one meaning. If I say, “I always confuse Barbara with her sister,” the meaning is “fail to distinguish, erroneously regard as identical, mistake one for another.”

This is clearly the definition that applies to the prepositional phrase in the following headlines, but in each case, the writer has used the preposition for instead of with:

Knife attack confused for performance art at Art Basel Miami Beach—CNN

Local Doctor Confused for Razorback Football Player—Fox16 news

Liam Payne Still Gets Confused For Louis Tomlinson—MTV

A possible explanation for this growing usage is confusion with another expression close in meaning: “mistaken for.”

The knife attack was mistaken for a performance. The doctor is mistaken for the football player. Liam Payne is mistaken for Louis Tomlinson.

The preposition switch in this idiom is not as noticeable as the one that uses “for” with excited, and it does not provoke the same amount of outrage. Only one reader has ever commented negatively on the use of “confused for.” My post on “excited for,” on the other hand, garnered twenty passionate comments and 427 “Likes.”
“Confused for” may be destined for acceptance, but at present, it is simply careless writing.

An even more blatant preposition error with confused is to follow it with of.

So far, I’ve noticed this misuse chiefly in badly expressed readers’ comments on tech sites and in social media, but there is a song with “confused of” in the lyrics—always a bad sign.

Here are some examples of the incorrect use of “confused of”:

I’m aware that there’s [sic] licensing fees and such and all this ATHP stuff. I’m confused of the requirements and how to know when you need to register and pay.

I am 25 years old and I am confused of what to do in the future professionally.

I feel confused of the PlayerSetup.cs in Multiplayer FPS tutorial #3.

For the few that are confused of what is a hero or have courage visit the wounded Warrior Website and find the true answer.

We fight and love so much
Sometimes I get confused of who we are,
—“We Fight/We Love,” by rapper called Q-Tip

In each of these examples, “confused about” would be the correct usage.

Related posts:
Excited About, Not For
A Chance of Showers

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10 Responses to ““Confused With” and “Confused About””

  • Melissa

    Perhaps I’m one of those old-timers that you are consigning to an early grave, but it still bothers me to hear people say “oblivious to” instead of “oblivious of,” which was the only accepted construction not very long ago.

  • Farhad

    Thanks for your post. This is the way that language works. Little by little it changes.

  • Maeve

    Melissa,
    Here’s a discussion of “oblivious of” vs “oblivious to”:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/oblivious-to-or-of/

  • jcdoubleu

    Solid advice.

    One little tidbit at the very end caught my attention, though: the attribution “by rapper called Q-Tip.”

    It’s a seemingly minute detail, but “called” in conjunction with a person’s chosen mononym betrays a condescending tone, almost as if one is placing scare quotes around the name. One wouldn’t use “called” with a traditional-sounding stage name, e.g. “by folk singer called Bob Dylan,” and it should be no different with mononyms, however funny they strike the writer. The descriptor can also intensify the condescending effect. Compare with awkwardness of “by rock singer called Bono” or “by pop star called Madonna.” Or the downright silliness of “by playwright called Moliere” or “by author called Voltaire.” It’s not simply about one’s familiarity with the author, either; even if you might not be personally familiar with Q-Tip, plenty of people in other circles may not know who Bono or Moliere are.

    For the intensifying effect of the descriptor when paired with “called,” consider the difference between “by punk singer called Sting” and “by adult contemporary artist called Sting.” Both are condescending by virtue of “called,” but the first speaker is an old fuddy-duddy criticizing “kids these days,” the latter speaker appreciates “real,” “authentic” music, and is making subtle, ironic fun of the “artist” pretensions of much adult contemporary music.

    It’s especially problematic in this case when “called” is paired with “rapper.” “Rapper” on its own is nothing more than a descriptor; paired with “called,” though, it suggests a condescension entwined with race.

    Granted, you are pointing out an error in preposition use, so perhaps the condescension was intentional (even if the racial undertone wasn’t). Nonetheless, a simple “by Q-Tip” (or, if you felt it was necessary to clarify the specific genre–I’m not sure it is–“by rapper Q-Tip”) would be more professional.

    Perhaps you could write a post on mononyms at some point? (In fact, “Q-Tip” is probably debatable: does it get to count as a single word? If so, what about “Ice-T”? “Ice Cube” isn’t a mononym, but it sure feels like one: a singular noun instead of a given name and surname…)

  • Roberta B.

    It seems to me that all of the “confused of” examples should be “confused about.”

  • venqax

    I don’t know if it’s “old timey” or not, but the use of “on” as an all-purpose preposition irritates me. “Do you have information on turtles?”
    “He gave a talk on prepositions”, “As for your questions on the proper use of on…”. In every case “about” is more appropriate, or even “regarding” and “on” just sounds downright clunky. Clunkiness should be avoided on, I think.

  • thebluebird11

    Hmmm. Now I’m confused. In some of the cases you mention, it seems to me that they need a different VERB, not a different preposition. However, changing the verb can change the meaning, and since the meanings are not clear to me, I’m just confused.
    Taking the 5 incorrect examples you mention at the end, the 1st one I think could say “I’m unsure of the requirements.” However, being unsure of something is not the same as being confused by something. In the first case, crucial information may be missing. In the second case, there may be too much information, some of it conflicting or written in a convoluted way.
    Now, a little off topic, but in the 2nd example, I originally thought it should be “I’m unsure of what to do in the future,” but maybe it should be “I’m unsure what to do in the future,” leaving out “of” altogether? Still, I don’t think you can be confused by the future because…it’s unknown. You have no information, so you can’t be confused. Maybe I’m not explaining myself properly, but can the future be confusing?
    In the 3rd example, it clearly should be “confused by,” as most likely all the information is there, but the person doesn’t understand it for whatever reason.
    In the 4th example, again a bit off topic, aside from the “confused of” problem, that person may be OK with being “that,” but most people prefer to be “who.” So for starters it should be “For the few WHO…” Secondly, I would not say “WHAT is a hero.” If you are referring to a person, you would say “WHO is a hero.” OTOH, if you’re trying to define “hero,” I think you would need to recast the phrase and say “what a hero is.” As far as the rest of the sentence, I am again confused as to whether one needs to use “of” or whether that is incorrect, if we sub the word “unsure,” as in “…who are unsure [of] what a hero is…”
    I hardly want to comment on the 5th example, partly because with a name like Q-Tip, I would expect stuff like that, and the person would probably claim poetic license. But since my mother taught me that if I have nothing nice to say, I should say nothing, I will end here.
    Welcome back, Maeve 🙂

  • venqax

    OK, bluebird, but still the issue is what preposition confuse should take. What exactly the word confuse/confusion means is a separate question not really relevant to the first, right? One can say, “His face was as livid as a pickled beet” and there is nothing grammatically wrong with the statement.

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: I know I was a bit off topic, as I said, but I have no argument with the post; clearly “confused for” is incorrect, when you know how native English speakers speak (or should speak). The main thing I was bringing up is that some of these bad constructions (“confused for”) could be avoided if people used the correct VERB. Sometimes they are not, in fact, confused. They are unsure, or doubtful, or not clear about, or something. so if they would switch to the correct verb, the number of “confused for” errors should decrease significantly.

  • Roberta B.

    @jcdoubleu – Grow Up! It’s not a matter of being a fuddy-duddy or condescending, but you make a good point about mononyms being a interesting topic for discussion. The question you raise, whether to use: “called (by),” “named,” “known as,” or “goes by,” I assume depends on whether the speaker knows or believes that the mononym is the person’s given or real name. Entertainers, athletes, bloggers, or even those in your circle of friends may be known by mononyms that they have chosen to call themselves or have had bestowed upon them by friends or adversaries. Do you believe someone chose to name their child Q-Tip? It could be a nickname he was called as a child or one he chose to call himself………and it definitely has nothing to do with race! In either case, there is nothing condescending about the way to describe what he is called.

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