Confusing Adjectives

Correct Uses of Commonly Confused Adjectives

There are a number of words in English that appear substitutable but are distinct in meaning.

Non-native speakers, as well as most native speakers, confusedly use a number of such words and inadvertently commit errors in grammatical constructions.

In this study we'll be exploring such words; and whilst doing so, stating their correct uses.

1.  Elder versus Older

Let's take a close look at sentences 1) and 2)

In these sentences, the words elder and older have been used incorrectly.

Some of us unknowingly assume both words are substitutable; when in reality, they are actually different in meaning.

Looking individually at their meanings:

On the other hand, elder, refers to ONLY PERSONS and is strictly used only for people of the same blood relation such as family members.

Thus, in the first sentence, where no relationship is mentioned, instead of elder, older must be used.

In the second sentence, where blood relationship is specifically mentioned, we must use elder not older.

Note also that while elder is always followed by of, older is always followed by than.

So the correct versions of the sentences are:

2.  Few, A few, and The few

These three adjectives are often wrongly used. Let’s consider the sentence below:

This sentence is wrong but first let's look at the meaning of these words.

2.1.   Few

Few means not many or scarcely any; it is almost a negative sense.

For Example:
Few persons can own a private jet. (This means no one can own a private jet)

2.2.   A Few

A few has a positive meaning; it is equivalent and synonymous to some.

For Example:
A few persons can own a private jet (This means there are some who can own a private jet)

2.3.   The Few

The few means: that which has been mentioned earlier. It refers to something already mentioned.

For Example:
I gave him the few materials I had. (It means all those materials that I had)

Now, it’s all clear what’s wrong with the 3a) sentence above; the correct word in that context of the sentence is few not a few.

3.  Little, A little, and The little

The same thing is true with these three adjectives. However, while few, a few and the few are used to indicate numbers, the terms little, a little and the little are used to indicate quantity.

Observe their uses below:

Little means scarcely any.
For Example:
He has little knowledge in programming language. (This means he has no knowledge at all.)

A little means some.
For Example:
He has a little knowledge in programming language. (This means he has some knowledge.)

The little means the whole amount that is there.
For Example:
I might have lost the little knowledge I had in programming language. (this means all the knowledge that I had)

Important Hint! 

Be informed that sometimes the adverbs just and only can be used before a few and a little, but not before few and little. For example:

  • There are only a few touches left and we are done. (Not only few touches …)

4.  Less versus Fewer

Consider the sentence below:

This sentence might sound correct to most people but the construction is actually erroneous.

The adjective, less, refers to quantity while twelve numerally indicate a number.

When we refer to numbers—as with the case here—we use fewer, not less.

So the correct construction for the sentence is shown in 4b).

  • Fewer refers to numerical values and can be used when we want to indicate value in number.
  • Less refers to quantity and can be used for non–countable quantities. For example: “There is less milk in this can.” (Not ‘fewer’)

5.  Some versus Any

Consider the sentence below:

Some of us would probably guess this sentence is wrong. Hey, you know what, your guess is right!

Some is usually used in affirmative sentences while any is used in negative and interrogative sentences.

Now we know what caused the error in the sentence above. Here is the correct version:

Note that any can be used after if or an expression of doubt in affirmative sentences. For example:

Some can be used in questions which are offers/requests or where the expected answer is yes, as shown in 7) and 8).

6.  Much, Many, and Many a

Consider the following sentences:

While much refers to quantity and many refers to number, always remember that many a is singular and always takes a singular noun and verb. So, the corrections for the above sentences are:

7.  Oral versus Verbal

Consider the next sentence:

In this sentence, oral has been wrongly used instead of verbal.

Interestingly, this mistake could be avoided once we understood the difference between these two words.

And now, the correction for the sentence is shown in 11b).

→Not oral because using oral here will be wrong as we are talking about the content—words— of the book, not spoken statements.

8.  Mutual versus Common

At some point we might have wrongly used the word mutual in sentences such as the following:

Using mutual to describe friendship is a misnomer.

Despite Facebook using this term to group a list of interrelated friends, it contravenes the strict rules of Standard Written English. Mutual being used in this context is wrong as it means reciprocal.

Mutual is often used for abstract things which are interchangeable such as:

9.  Further versus Farther

Consider the following sentences:

You will concur that these sentences sound strange. Well, that’s because the words further and farther have been used in the wrong places.

Now, we must swap both words from both sentences to convey the correct expressions. This is because, the word farther means more distant; while further means additional.

10.  Nearest versus Next

Consider the sentence in 16):

The strangeness of this sentence to the ear will tickle your instincts that something is not right with it.

Again, the word nearest has been wrongly used instead of next. This is because nearest indicates distance, and next refers to position or order.

11.  Later versus Latter

Most of us tend to confuse the meanings of these two words and wrongly use each in place of the other.

Looking at the sense of the words, later refers to time, while latter refers to order and means the second of the two things that have been mentioned.

12.  Last versus Latest

Last is the opposite of first, and it’s used when referring to the most recent of a series of more than two things. It also implies it is the last of the series and after it, it is finished—nothing else will follow.

Latest is the opposite of earliest it means that it is the last to date, which means there could be more to follow.

13.  Each versus Every

The word each is used when referring to entities one by one from a group of two or more entities. Every is usually used when referring to more than two entities, taken as a group.

We specifically use each when the number in the group is definite, and every when the number is indefinite.

Important Hint  

Note that we don’t use every for two. Each is more specific while every is more emphatic. Also important to note is that, each and every are never used with countable nouns.

14.  Small and Big versus Young and Old

Small and big are usually used in reference to size; while young and old are used when referring to age.

15.  High versus Tall

Here are two adjectives that are often used in a wrong way. However, while both words refer to height, their context is different.

High refers to trees, buildings or mountains. Tall is generally used with people.

16.  Beautiful versus Handsome

Beautiful is generally used for women. Handsome, on the other hand, is used for men.

17.  Injured versus Wounded

These two words often confuse non–native speakers as well as most native speakers. Here is the correct usage for both words.

Injured is specifically used when a person encounters an accident or was involved in a fight. Wounds are caused in wars or battles.

So, wounded is used for persons or casualties involved in wars or battles.