The other day my husband came in with the groceries.

‘I’ve bought plenty of pasta packets.’ he said.

To me this means little packs to serve one or two people, that contain both pasta and the ingredients for a sauce – a quick snack when in a hurry. You just add water or milk, perhaps some butter and heat up.  Today we’d been out for a walk and needed lunch quickly so that he could go on to an appointment. but I searched the shopping bag in vain.  Plenty of plain pasta in packets,  but no pasta packets.  We discussed the difference between a packet of pasta and a pasta packet over lunch – sardine sandwiches.

In English, as in many other languages, these are lots of instances like this, word order is important and the words you use are important too, even if there is only a slight difference in meaning, or even when the words have the same meaning, when combined with another word that meaning can change.  Tinned beef isn’t the same as a tin of corned beef. The first refers to steak or perhaps minced beef, the second to beef that has undergone a kind of pickling. A carton of soup isn’t the same as a packet of soup. The first contains cooked soup which just needs reheating, the second is all the ingredients in dried form and the soup has to be reconstituted by adding water and then cooking. 

Many people would not differentiate between tomato ketchup and tomato sauce.  But what about a tomato sauce?  All of them start off with fresh ingredients, but ketchup (aka tomato sauce) contains vinegar and will keep for a considerable time, especially in your fridge. A tomato sauce on the other hand is something usually made fresh to be served immediately for a particular dish, and could be more like a salsa.

Homonyms, words spelt the same but with different meaning as for example the fish ‘skate’ and to skate on ice, are another reason why English can be confusing. Then there are homophones – words which sound the same , but have different meanings and spellings, such as ‘dear’ i.e beloved and ‘deer’ , a wild animal. Then there are homographs, words, usually with different origins, which have the same spelling , but different pronunciation such as ‘bass’. With a long ‘aa’ it is a fish, but with a short ‘a’ it is the name for a deep male voice. It is no wonder people make mistakes when using English especially if a word is not in its proper context, or if they have only seen it written down and not heard it.

Here are some words people often confuse.

Accept - to agree; to receive
Except - but, with the exception that

Advice (noun) – a recommendation
Advise (verb)- the act of giving a recommendation. Someone who gives advice is an advisor.

Sometimes such instances come in threes as with:-

Air ( noun) – the gas we breathe.
Err ( verb) to make a mistake or to sin
Heir ( noun) – the person who inherits something.

These do have slight differences in their pronunciation, but it is very subtle and most people wouldn’t be aware of it.

Already ( time) – as in ‘Has that programme finished already ?
All ready – prepared. As in ‘We are all ready to go.’ i.e. all prepared .

This could become a very long list and you won’t learn them all, so don’t worry if, like between me and my husband, there is occasional confusion.  Just laugh it off and perhaps make some sandwiches.

If you'd like to look at some more confusing words and homophones, take a look at the website.