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15 confusing vocabulary questions my ESL students ask

By Armando Pannacci
Armando Pannacci on the confusing vocabulary questions his students ask him and how he answers them

Don’t get caught off-guard by your students when they ask you common vocabulary questions that you should know the answer to. Some very common vocabulary questions arise in the classroom and as speakers of English we do use the words correctly, most of the time, but easily get caught off-guard and have a hard time explaining them. I have chosen 15 that I get asked most often. Cut your hesitation time by reading these quick explanations and be aware that these do come up in class.

1. house vs home

A house is a type of home:

  • I live in that blue house.

Homes are generally a concept of where you live. There are many types of homes such as apartments, condos, townhouses, as well as houses. It can also be used in more abstract ways:

  • I am homeless at the moment; can I stay with you?
  • Home is where the heart is.

2. wish vs hope

Wish is an event that likely will not happen, such as a desire or impossible want:

  • I wish I was taller.

Hope is an event that is more likely to happen:

  • I hope I pass the exam tomorrow.

3. see vs look vs watch

There are exceptions but generally…

See means to being visually aware of something happening:

  • Let’s see you do that trick.

Look means to direct your eyes in a certain direction:

  • Look over there!

Watch means to look at something for an extended period of time:

  • Let’s watch a movie.

4. except vs besides

Except expresses exclusion:

  • I like all Japanese foods except sushi.
    (I like all Japanese food but not sushi.)

Besides expresses inclusion:

  • I speak French and German besides English.
    (I speak English, French and German.)

5. who vs whom

Who can represent he or she (and they). Who expresses the subject of a sentence:

  • Who will help me? She will.

Whom can represent him or her (and them). Whom expresses the object of a sentence:

  • Whom will you marry? I’ll marry her.

6. which vs that

Which adds information to a subject but it does not change the meaning of the subject. The clause with which is always between commas:

  • Tokyo, which is the capital of Japan, is my favorite city.

That makes something more specific and becomes part of the subject. The clause does not require any comma use:

  • The jacket that I bought yesterday is keeping me very warm.

(The subjects are underlined.)

7. very vs really

Very and really can both modify an adjective:

  • A very good jacket
  • A really good jacket

Only really can modify a verb:

  • I really enjoy my job. (correct)
  • I very enjoy my job. (incorrect)

8. it’s vs its

It’s is a contraction of “it is”:

  • It’s my birthday.

Its is a possessive like “my” or your”:

  • We need to mend its wing.

9. capital vs capitol

Capital is an upper-case letter, wealth, or a city that is the seat of government:

  • The capital of Japan is Tokyo.

Capitol (mainly US) refers to a building that houses a government’s legislative branch:

  • He works in the Utah state capitol.

The next words on the list differ because they are different parts of speech. Some words have similar meanings but are different parts of speech and thus confusing. Knowing parts of speech is needed to explain these and many other similar words to your students – review parts of speech if needed!

10. lose vs loose

Lose means suffer a loss. It is a verb:

  • If we don’t score soon, we will lose the game.

Loose means not tight. It is an adjective:

  • These pants are too loose for me.

11. advise vs advice

Advise is a verb:

  • He advised me to study more.

Advice is a noun:

  • He gave me good advice.

12. affect vs effect

Affect is a verb:

  • The light affected his vision.

Effect is a noun:

  • The effect of the medicine cured him.

13. while vs during

While is a conjunction:

  • I ate while I watched the game.

During is a preposition:

  • I ate during the game.

14. because vs because of

Because is a conjunction:

  • The game was cancelled because the weather was terrible.

Because of has to be followed by a noun, since “of” is a preposition:

  • The game was cancelled because of the weather.

15. but vs however vs despite

But can join two clauses. It is a conjunction:

  • I like to read but I don’t like to watch movies.

However cannot join two clauses; it introduces a statement. It is an adverb:

  • I do believe him. However, I feel he exaggerates his stories.

Despite is a preposition and therefore needs to be followed by a noun:

  • I enjoy my job despite the long commute.
Written by Armando Pannacci for Tefl.NET September 2020
Arm is a Canadian ESL teacher with over ten years' experience teaching English in Thailand, Korea and Canada. He has a bachelor's of social work degree and received his certificate in TESOL from TESOL Canada.
© Tefl.NET


  • Azita says:

    Very very thank you. Always I wasn’t sure when I used them.

  • Lidia Ines says:

    Very very useful .Thank you very much

  • The King Of Love From IRAN says:

    Thank you so much,

  • Dasari Murali says:

    Good to know a few complicated vocabulary and pray to get involved in the training program as I am much interested in it.

  • Armando Pannacci says:

    Glad they helped!

  • Ali Assdollahi says:

    That was great.It will help a lot the teachers to explain the addressed confusing words to their students.thanks.

  • iris mccormick says:

    great thank you for this – really consise and helpful

  • Elias Gasparini says:

    Great! Great! Great!
    Each one of them is useful.
    They go straight to the point.
    I wish I had all my questions about the English language explained this way.

  • Viviane says:

    Big thanks for clarifying.

  • Liane says:

    Many thanks! Half of these I have already been asked, indeed!)
    Best wishes!

  • Marcus Gohar says:

    Not something we would usually teach to any learner below C2 but “affect” also refers to the emotions and “affective” means connected with the emotions. As teachers we should always be mindful of the “affective filter”, which refers to students experiencing difficulties, especially but not exclusively speaking, because they are nervous. A student won’t talk. A number of possible explanations but perhaps the “affective filter” is raised. The onus is on the hapless teacher to help the learner lower it. I have a few strategies for doing this which I could share if there’s a demand but would welcome new ideas!

  • Armando Pannacci says:

    Sure, you can use them. Cheers.

  • Silvia Girimonti says:

    Thanks for this post, very clearly explained, in fact, many students confuse these words. I will use it with my students, if you don’t mind

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