English has a large number of words that both native and non-native speakers have difficulty using correctly. In our commonly-confused words lessons, we’ve focused on words with similar spellings and/or pronunciations but different meanings. Our “tricky words” lessons shift the focus to words whose uses are confused for reasons other than just how the words look or sound.
Hear and Listen
A sound you hear comes to your ears with no effort on your part. When you listen, you are actively paying attention to the sound:
I hear my neighbor’s dog barking.
I like to listen to podcasts during my commute.
Lay and Lie
Lay is a transitive verb. As such, it always takes an object. Its key forms are lay, laid, and laid:
Every evening, Jim carefully lays out his clothes for the following day.
The student laid his phone down when the teacher came into the room.
Lie is an intransitive verb, so it never takes an object. Lie is actually a homograph with two different meanings, each having its own forms. Lie, lay, and lain mean “to get into a prone (flat) position.” Lie, lied, and lied mean “to say something that is not true.”
She lay on her couch enjoying her Sunday.
The student lied to his teacher about completing the homework.
Learn and Teach
Learn and Teach mean to receive and to give knowledge, respectively:
Janie didn’t learn to drive until she was 20.
Janie’s uncle finally taught her how to drive.
Look, See, and Watch
How you should use these words depends on the effort and duration involved. See means to perceive something with your eyes through no effort on your part:
I saw a mattress on the side of the road on my way to work this morning.
Look means to purposely search for something or otherwise make an effort to see:
Please help me look for my cell phone. I can’t find it anywhere.
Watch implies that you look at something for a sustained period of time:
Are you planning to watch the Atlanta United game tomorrow?
Raise and Rise
Raise is a transitive verb while rise is an intransitive verb. The principal forms of raise are raise, raised, and raised. The key forms of rise are rise, rose, and risen:
My insurance company just raised my monthly premium.
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
When and While
When means “at a specific time”:
Maggie’s dog was waiting for her when she arrived home from school.
While means “during a specific period of time”:
Maggie played with her dog while her mom made dinner.
Note: When should never be used with a progressive verb. While is often, but not always, used with a progressive verb.
In, on, and at
These words are used in both place and time expressions.
In is used when something is enclosed. You can place an object in a box, in a car, in a room, and so on.
On is used when the object is atop a surface: on a table, on a wall, on a roof, etc.
At is used in a general sense in situations where in or on would not be applicable. For example, you might say that you are at school, at work, or at home.
In is used for months, years, seasons, and parts of the day: in March, in 2017, in spring, in the evening.
On is used for specific days: on Wednesday, on Easter, on February 28th, etc.
At is used for exact times: at noon, at 3:13, at this time tomorrow, etc.