How to remember confusing English words

Updated: 21/04/2021

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Definisci il tuo metodo di memorizzare vocaboli nuovi
As a language teacher, I empathize with the struggle of having to memorize new, 
baffling words, and even more so, getting the right pronunciation. As a foreign language 
learner, I know the struggle. Over the years I’ve racked my brain to try and find ways to 
retain daunting conjugation columns and ever-growing lists of vocabulary. 
 
One approach which seems to work with what appears to be a good majority of 
languages is word-association. Of course, you’d argue, not every word has a word 
association, but part of it will, and that’s enough to help remember a word. Easier said than 
done?  
 
As mentioned earlier, I’m a foreign language learner myself, so I can put myself in 
English students’ shoes. I’ve been learning Dutch for the past year or two, and I’ll admit it 
isn’t an easy language to master – lengthy words and nearly impossible for the English 
‘subtle’ tongue to pronounce, and too puzzling for the ‘simple’ English-grammar-mind to 
fathom. 
 
Yet, I’ve tried to work around it. I use my native language, as well as other languages 
I have knowledge of, to form word associations, in order to help me memorize and 
remember, in the long run, words or phrases.  At first I break them up, into smaller, 
memorable syllables. A phrase I believe I’ll never forget is ‘four-all-Denmark’. You may think 
‘what kind of nonsense is this?’. Yet there is reasoning to my madness – it makes perfect 
sense to me, the student, and that’s all that matters. The word associations that you find 
don’t need to make sense to anyone but you. Make it personal – use any association, 
memory or reference that is relevant, and memorable to you. Another example up my 
sleeve is the word ‘voorzichtig’. You’d wonder ‘How on earth do you remember that?’ Well, I 
broke it down into 3 memorable syllables: four-six-tech.  
 
How can you apply this to English? Take a simple example such as Tuesday and 
Thursday which are very often confused. Tuesday is the second day of the week and so, 
twosday. Bingo! The pronunciation will come with time - remember ‘chu chu’ from your 
childhood? There you have it - Chusday.  
 
How to remember telling the time? Minutes first, past or to, then the hour. Past 
means after, to means before. It works every time with my students and I love to see the 
smile on their faces when they get it.  
 
Similarly, in intermediate levels, here is a list of ‘homophones (words that sound the 
same but are spelled differently and have a different meaning) to help remember daunting 
irregular past simple verbs: 
 
Eat - ate - 8 (as simple as that) 
Know - knew - new (opposite of old) 
Wear - wore - war (opposite of peace) 
fly - flew -  flu (having fever and feeling unwell) 
buy - bought - bot (very similar to boat) 
teach - taught - tot (from pot)  
 
draw - drew - (An)drew  
pay - paid - p8  
say - said - sɛd (from sad) 
write - wrote - roat (from road) 
make - made - m8 
hear (a bird) - heard - heard (similar to bird)  
read - read - red (colour) 
grow - grew - (gr)ew (exclamation to express disgust)  
get - got - got (from pot) 
meet - met- met (from pet) 
blow (up a balloon) - blew - blue (colour)  
 
The list is infinite. With more advanced levels, and more specifically when it comes 
to phrasal verbs-everyone’s favourite-my best advice is to make it personal. Think of 
personal situations to associate phrasal vebs with. I get on really well with Anna (I have a 
good relationship with my best friend Anna) or I don’t get on with my eldest brother (my 
brother and I don’t have a good relationship).   
 
The same goes for idioms. I am usually snowed under just before Christmas time, 
when I have to hand in a lot of reports. (Just before Christmas is the time that I am the 
busiest with work). We have to hand in (give with my hands or send) our project before 
Easter time (we have to deliver our completed project to my teacher before Easter). I can’t 
stand impatient drivers who beep all the time. (I hate impatient drivers)  
 
Last but not least, once the meaning and the pronunciation of a word, expression, 
idiom or phrasal verb is established and linked in ‘your memory palace’, write down an 
example sentence that is unique to you – make it relevant to your life and the situations 
where you’d apply it. In turn, you are more likely to use it in real life, and therefore, 
remember it.  

Peggy
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Expert ESL Teacher Peggy
 

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