Confusing Words Clarified: Group A; Homonyms, Homophones, Homographs, Synonyms, Polysemes, etc.

(lists of "A" sections that are organized into what for some people are confusing groups of words)

English can be very confusing; for example, a house burns up as it burns down, a form is being filled in as it is being filled out, and an alarm goes off by going on. How about when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible?

As you examine the groups of words in this unit, you will find many examples of confusions; sometimes, just one or two letters in a word can change its meaning completely. There are also times when two different words get confused because their meanings apply to things that are very similar.

Efforts have been made to help you grasp the meanings of various words that may be confusing so you can utilize them with greater accuracy in your communication.

Your comments and suggestions are always welcome by writing to: E-mail Contact (just click it for an e-mail form) or by typing, [email protected], as the address in your e-mail heading.

If you have any problems understanding the pronunciation symbols, go to this Pronunciation Chart for clarifications.

ask, ax, ax, ax, hatchet
ask (ASK) (verb)
1. To try to find out about something by inquiring: Damon plans to ask the librarian where he can find a special book.
2. To request; to express a desire for: Erika had no choice but to ask Rickey for help in changing the tire.
3. To demand or to expect; such as, a price: The antique dealer wanted to ask $25.00 for the watch.
ax (AKS) (noun)
A sharp bladed tool with a long handle, typically used for chopping, e.g. wood, ice, etc.: Paul Bunyan was known to have carried a long handled ax over his shoulder.
ax (AKS) (verb)
To cut, to reduce, to dismiss: The city council had to ax summer swimming programs in order to balance the budget.
ax (AKS); sometimes misused for "ask" (ASK) (verb)
A mispronunciation of ask used by a large number of people including those who are considered to be educated: Perry said that he will ax his friend if she wants to go to the dance with him.

Come on Wade, didn’t you ax Arturo about that movie yesterday?

This pronunciation still exists in many dialects, but it is "no longer considered acceptable" in standard English.

hatchet (HACH it) (noun)
A tool with a short handle and a sharp blade for chopping: Stan was not sure whether to use the hatchet for chopping firewood or the ax with the longer handle.

When Olivia was writing an anthology of rural folk tales, she often had to ask the local people to explain what they were saying.

Juana was amused by the frequent response, "Lady, you ax me about that TV program already."

aspiration, inspiration, perspiration
aspiration (as" puh RAY shuhn) (noun)
1. A strong desire or high ambition; something that a person wants very much to achieve: Opal's aspiration for the future is to become a successful business woman.
2. In linguistics, the act of pronouncing the sound of a breath: The aspiration of the letter "h" as in "a house" is one example of pronouncing aspirated letters.
3. In medicine, removing liquid from a person's body: Amelia was treated with the aspiration of stomach fluids.
4. Breathing something into the lungs: Ken was having problems caused by the aspiration of fluids into his lungs.
inspiration (in" spuh RAY shuhn) (noun)
1. Stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or some creative effort or activity: Yvette's early childhood experiences provided the inspiration for her first novel.
2. The act of breathing in, especially the inhalation of air into the lungs: The doctor was trying to help Alison improve her inspiration after years of lung problems.
perspiration (pur" spuh RAY shuhn) (noun)
The fluid, consisting of water with small amounts of urea and salts, which is excreted through the pores of the skin by the sweat glands; sweating: Linda wiped the perspiration from her forehead as she anticipated making her speech to a group of teachers.

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

—Thomas Alva Edison

Dwight told his friend, Doctor Sergeo, that he was an inspiration for him to complete his medical studies after he treated Dwight for the aspiration of fluid into his lungs.

Dr. Sergeo laughed and reminded Dwight that he would have to shed a lot of perspiration and tears during his medical training.

aspire, expire, inspire
aspire (uh SPIHR) (verb)
1. To strive toward an end: The university students aspire to greater knowledge in their chosen career fields.
2. To want to have or to achieve something; such as, a particular career or level of success: These young men and women aspire to careers in medicine.
expire (ik SPIGHR) (verb)
1. To come to an end; to terminate: Rene's membership in the club will expire next month.
2. To breathe one's last breath; to die: It is medically obvious that Austin will expire sometime during the day as a result of his long-term illness.
3. To exhale; to breathe out: Doctor Armando wanted to measure the volume of air which Mamie could expire.
inspire (in SPIGHR) (verb)
1. To stimulate others to do something; for example, any creative or artistic work: Mrs. Verna Lawson's teaching techniques are done with the idea that they will inspire her students to become scientists.
2. To inhale air or a gas into the lungs: While they were climbing in the high mountains, Isabel and Morris had to inspire oxygen before they could climb any higher.

Monique wants to aspire to become a teacher because she wants to inspire students to appreciate poetry.

One of Cody's fellow students remarked that it was a shame that many famous poets expire when they are young, and are often poor and ill, too.

assailant, assassin
assailant (uh SAY luhnt) (noun)
Someone who attacks another person; an attacker, an aggressor: Casey Stuart, the assailant, was later identified by Daryl as the one who had attacked and beaten him.
assassin (uh SAHS sin) (noun)
Someone who murders by surprise attack; especially, anyone who carries out a plot to kill a prominent person: John Wilkes Booth was Abraham Lincoln's assassin.

Assassin came from Arabic hashshashin, "hashish-users", a name of an Islamic order founded about 1090, whose members were said to take hashish before being sent forth to assassinate leading Crusaders.

The police were able to catch Sidney's assailant. Enrique Wade was already wanted by the police because he was a suspected assassin of another person who was in the same park where Sidney was attacked.

assassinate, assail, assault, assault
assassinate (uh SAS uh nayt") (verb)
To murder (a prominent person) by the means of a surprise ambush, often for political reasons: Someone did indeed assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, in 1963.
assail (uh SAYL) (verb)
To strike with or as if with violent blows: A mugger tried to assail James on the dark street as he was walking home.
assault (uh SALT) (noun)
A violent verbal attack with criticism: Paul was heard verbally making an assault at one of his coworkers.
assault (uh SALT) (verb)
To attack with or as if with violent blows: Stacy was wanted by the police because she assaulted a man with her umbrella.

It seems to be a bit unfair that the newspapers referred to the attempted shooting of a famous man as an attempt to assassinate him. Ordinary people have to be satisfied with being subject to an assault by someone attempting to assail them.

assay, assay, essay, essay
assay (uh SAY, AS ay) (noun)
The chemical analysis or testing of an alloy or ore; especially, of gold or silver, to determine the ingredients and their proportions: The assay, which the specialists undertook, helped them find out how pure the gold from the stream was.
assay (uh SAY, AS ay) (verb)
To conduct an examination or testing: The officials will assay the votes to determine the final results of the election.

Take time to assay the information before drawing a conclusion.

essay (ES ay, e SAY) (noun)
A short piece of writing that reveals a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject: Flora's assignment was to write a 500-word essay on one of the topics given by the teacher.
essay (ES ay, e SAY) (verb)
To try to do, to perform, or to deal with something: There is no hint as to which of the approaches Nelson will essay that will prove useful for the project.

Felix wrote his essay for the professor about how to assay the minerals found in the local stream.

assimilate, simulate
assimilate (uh SIM uh layt") (verb)
1. To consume and incorporate (nutrients) into the body after digestion: What Bob eats will assimilate into his bodily system.
2. To learn something so that it is fully understood and can be used: Children need to assimilate new ideas and there is a lot of information to assimilate in schools.
3. To cause a person or group to become part of a different society, country, etc.: Schools have been used to assimilate the children of immigrants.
simulate (SIM yuh layt") (verb)
1. To make a pretense of; to feign: Lue tried to simulate tears to get the sympathy of her friend.
2. To have or to take on the appearance, form, or sound of: The wall surface was constructed to simulate stone.

The contractors understood Jordan's request to simulate brick when building the new house; however, it took the workers time to assimilate the instructions of exactly what Jordan was actually expecting.

assistance, assistants
assistance (uh SIS tuhns) (noun)
1. Support; cooperation: The pilot needed the copilot’s assistance in landing the plane.
2. Financial support: Public assistance is needed to build the orphanage.
assistants (uh SIS tuhnts) (noun)
Those who help someone, or who support a number of higher ranking people, to complete work assignments: The new assistants in the office are very hard workers.

Yvette asked the mover, Kirk and his assistants, for their assistance in carrying her heavy boxes up the stairs.

assume, presume
assume (uh SOOM) (verb)
1. To take for granted, to speculate: Sidney and Byron assume that they will see the speaker at the meeting the following week.
2. To take on, become responsible for, take care of: The new buyer will assume the mortgage on the house.
presume (pri ZOOM) (verb)
1. Take for granted, believe, deduce: Dr. Livingston, I presume?
2. To rely on too much: Lora wants to presume on Dylan's writing talents to compile her memoirs.

These words have related but distinguishable meanings

To assume is to take for granted, to infer without proof: "Mrs. Blake assumed that her husband had paid the bill."

To presume is to believe something to be a fact: to infer as true without actual proof to the contrary.

When Stanley came upon another explorer in Africa, he didn't say "Dr. Livingstone, I assume" but "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" This was because circumstances clearly indicated that the man he was meeting could be no one else.

In ordinary conversation; however, the words may be used interchangeably.

—Based on information from
Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions
by Harry Shaw; McGraw-Hill Book Company;
New York; 1987; page 82.

Please, do not presume to second guess what Candice is going to say. She only wants to assume responsibility for her exact words.

assurance, insurance
assurance (uh SHOOR uhns) (noun)
The state of being sure or certain about something; a strong feeling of confidence: Stacy spoke with quiet assurance about his future plans.
insurance (in SHOOR uhns) (noun)
An agreement in which a person makes regular payments to a company and the company promises to pay money if the person is injured or dies; or to pay money equal to the value of something; such as, a house or a car, if it is damaged, lost, or stolen: After the fire destroyed their home, Rocky and Jasmine used the money from the insurance to buy a new house.

The insurance broker wanted assurance that Kari would pay the insurance premiums on time each month.

assure, ensure, insure
assure (uh SHOOR) (verb)
1. To promise, to guarantee: Antoine, the witness, tried to assure the judge that he was telling the truth.
2. To make something certain: Winning the literary award should assure Paulette's publisher that the novel will be a success.
ensure (en SHOOR) (verb)
1. To make sure or certain that something will take place: Otto took steps to ensure the safety of the passengers on the tour.
2. To make safe or secure: The government took steps to ensure the people that they would be safe from tyranny and terrorism.
3. To make or to take steps to provide for the safety of an object, individual, or situation: Shoveling snow after a snowfall was a way to ensure the safety of people walking on the sidewalks.
insure (in SHOOR) (verb)
1. To plan for or to arrange compensation for property, etc. in case of injury, destruction, etc.: Lynne and Emmett want to insure their house and car against fire and flood damage.

Heath, the owner of the new house, tried to insure it for $500,000.

2. To take steps or precautions for the safety of a situation; often done in an anticipatory or precautionary manner: Nadine bought a bag of sand for the sidewalk before the major storm to insure she was prepared for any icy conditions.

Jody and Trent always try to take great care to insure the safety and security of their home.

Apparently assure, ensure, and insure all include the meaning "to make secure or certain". The use of assure refers to a person as in the sense of "to set the mind at ease"; as "Krista wanted to assure her employer that she was ready to handle the new assignment".

A person can ensure that there will be prompt delivery of an item while insure is the only proper verb to use when someone means "to protect against loss".

So, although ensure and insure can be interchangeable in some situations, insure is normally used in American English in the sense of "to guarantee people or property against the risk of physical harm, damage, or loss" as when people have health insurance, property insurance, etc.

Everyone should ensure that he or she will insure a new car before driving it off the sale's lot.

astrology, astronomy
astrology (uh STRAHL uh jee) (noun)
A form of divination based on the theory that the movements of the celestial bodies; such as, the stars, the planets, the sun, and the moon influence human affairs and determine the course of events: Each day Chuck would check the astrology section in his newspaper to see what it said about his astrological sign.
astronomy (uh STRAHN uh mee) (noun)
The "scientific study" of heavenly bodies, particularly stars: Muriel wanted to study astronomy so she could learn more about the science of the universe.

Leticia's astronomy professor was very well informed and had a good sense of humor. In fact, he was even patient when people would ask him about astrology, seemingly confusing the scientific study of the universe with the suggestion that the stars and constellations influence human affairs.

ate, eight, eight
ate (AYT) (verb)
Past tense of "eat": They ate their dinner earlier than usual.
eight (AYT) (adjective)
The cardinal number 8 is equal to 7 + 1: There were eight people waiting for the bus.
eight (AYT) (noun)
The cardinal number (7+1) is also used to designate a specific number of items, individuals, etc.: The group of eight were having dinner together.

Jeremy ate the eight small pieces of chicken that were on his plate.

Later, Caroline saw an octet consuming their food; in other words, she saw eight who ate at the table in the restaurant.

attendance, attendants
attendance (uh TEN duhns) (noun)
1. Presence, appearance: Rodger, your attendance at the monthly club meeting is necessary.
2. Number present, audience, crowd: The attendance at the game was over 75,000.
attendants (uh TEN duhnts) (noun)
Escorts, followers, companions, servants, or associates: The queen was always surrounded by her attendants.

Elena always dreads winter and its related attendants of hardships.

The attendants danced in attendance at the dance at which the attendance was estimated at about 300 people with the attendant confusion of hats and coats.

auger, augur, augur
auger (AW gur) (noun)
A tool for boring holes into wood, leather, etc.: Charles used an auger to make holes in the shoes for the shoelaces.
augur (AW gur) (verb)
To foretell, predict, forewarn: Dark clouds augur the coming of the thunderstorm.
augur (AW gur) (noun)
1. A prophet, a prognosticator, an oracle: An ancient Roman augur told Julius Caesar to "Beware the Ides of March".
2. A priest in ancient Rome who was a member of the College of Augurs that numbered twelve; six patricians, and six plebeians: Marc Anthony was a distinguished member of the College of Augurs.

The Celtic augur reflected for a long time before he spoke: "I augur that the hero in the epic poem will use an auger to bore his way through the stone wall to make his escape from prison."

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