Understand confusing words in English

Confusing Words in English

We’ve been talking a lot about improving your English fluency on this blog the past couple of weeks, and if you’ve been active in participation, you have already found a conversation partner and are communicating in English much more often than before. Now that you’re communicating more and building confidence, how do you know if you are mixing up these confusing words in English? This post today will help you do that! I’ve chosen 10 of the most commonly confused words to help you continue to build your fluency skills, specifically with vocabulary in this lesson.

The confusing words in English we’ll be reviewing today are:

rob VS steal, borrow VS lend, pretend VS intend, lay VS lie, and history VS story

As always on this learning blog, you can start the lesson by watching these 5 Minute English video. The video (+ lesson) is perfect to listen to as you drive to work, commute to school, or while you’re cooking dinner or cleaning! After the video, continue reading below for the full blog lesson and practice exercises at the end.

Confusing Words in English


Both rob and steal have similar meanings, which is:

to take something from someone without permission, usually done by force

However, there are some main differences to help you remember:

ROB: focuses on the person that something was taken from, or the place that something was taken from

STEAL: focuses on the object that was taken

Here are some examples with ROB:

Passive voice:

I was robbed last night.  The bank was robbed last night

I hope we won’t be robbed on vacation. They had been robbed 3 times by the end of their trip.

Active voice:

Someone robbed me last night. Someone robbed the bank.

I hope locals won’t rob us on vacation. People had robbed them 3 times by the end of their trip.

Here are some examples with STEAL:

Passive voice:

My wallet was stolen. The car was stolen. Her favorite watch had been stolen right before her birthday.

Active voice:

Someone stole my wallet. The man stole the car. Someone had stolen her watch right before her birthday.


Like the words mentioned above, borrow and lend also have a similar definition, which is:

to take or give an object from/to someone temporary use

The main difference is going to be in the GIVE and TAKE:

BORROW: to take something (an object) from someone to use temporarily

LEND: to give something (an object) to someone to use temporarily

In the video, I gave the examples using a yellow owl figure:

My friend lent me this owl. (She gave it to me for temporary use)

I borrowed the owl (from my friend). (I took it from her to use temporarily)


I needed a dress to wear to a fancy Christmas party, so I borrowed a beautiful one from my friend. (I temporarily took the dress). I will borrow the dress from her.

I have 3 bicycles at my house, so I lent 2 to a friend to use for the weekend. (I gave 2 bikes to my friend temporarily). I will lend her the bicycles.


The confusion from these words come mostly for my Portuguese speaking students because of the translation from English to Portuguese. In English, “intend” is translated to “pretender” in Portuguese, so it’s easy to see why many students think it means “pretend” in English. However, this is not true. The word “pretend” in English is “fingir” in Portuguese. But let’s look at the English definitions and some examples.

PRETEND: to imagine or act like something is true


The little girl pretended to be her mom when she called in sick to school.

Let’s pretend we’re kings and queens today!

Joe didn’t like Mary’s joke, but he pretended he did and laughed anyway.

INTEND: to want or plan to do something


I intend to make more videos with these confusing words.

We intended to clean the house last weekend, but felt too lazy to do it all.

Joe intends to help Mary learn Italian.


English students aren’t the only ones who confuse lay and lie, many native speakers do too! Pay close attention so you don’t make these mistakes, and hey maybe you can even correct a native speaker someday, too! 🙂

LAY (+ object): to put someone or something in a flat position

I need to lay my baby down in the crib to sleep. He never laid a hand on them. I am laying down this blanket so I can sit and read in the grass.

Notice the other verb forms for LAY. The past tense and past participle is LAID, and the present participle is LAYING.

LIE (no object): to be in a flat position

I need to lie down because I’m very tired. They lay down for a nap yesterday. We were all lying in the grass talking last week.

Notice the other verb forms for LIE. The past tense is LAY, the past participle is LAIN, and the present participle is LYING.


I need to lay down because I’m tired.  This is INCORRECT, because “lay” needs an object


History and story are confusing because of the translation from English to some other languages, like Spanish and Portuguese. There is confusion because the word “story” (and history) translates to “historia”, see the problem? Let’s clear it up with the definitions and examples:

History can have a couple of meanings, but let’s focus on these noncount noun definitions:

1. the study of past events


I didn’t like history in high school.

She is a history teacher.

2. the events of the past


Language has changed across history.

Some people want to rewrite their own history because of regrets.

Story, unlike history, is a count down. It can have two meanings:

1. description of a past event


Tell me the story of what happened last night.

I love movies based on true stories.

2. description of imaginary events; fiction


I always read my son bedtime stories at night.

She has a wild imagination and is always telling crazy stories.

Let’s Practice

Now you have learned about these confusing words in English, it’s time to practice them! First, fill in the blanks and then use the discussion questions to practice with your partner, in class, or wherever you use English!

Fill in the blanks:

1. The book I am reading in a fictional _________ about American ________ in the 20’s.

2. Lucy ________ on going to her work’s Christmas party, so she needs to ________ a dress from her friend.

3. My friend was __________ and the thieves ______ her wallet . So I had to ________ her some money.

4. Little kids love to dress up and ________ to be different characters.

5. He _____ a blanket on the grass yesterday so he could ______ down and read.

Discussion questions:

1. Do you like studying the history of your country? What about the history of other countries?

2. What is the craziest story you heard from a friend?

3. What do you intend to do next week?

4. Have you ever pretended to be someone else?

5. Have you ever been robbed? If yes, what did the thieves steal from you?

6. Do often lie down for a nap in the afternoons?

7. What is the last thing you borrowed from a friend? What is the last thing you lent to a friend?

Answers to the above fill in the blanks, please don’t read this if you haven’t completed the exercises on your own

1.  story, history
2. intends, borrow
3. robbed, stole, lend
4. pretend
5. laid, lie
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