Same difference: why do we muddle up certain words?

There are a number of reasons why we confuse certain words and, it would seem, end up choosing the ‘wrong’ one. One reason is that the two words may sound similar. It doesn’t help much either if the words are related to one another in meaning. For instance, one of my students often mixed up the words ‘geleden’ (ago) and ‘verleden’ (past), even though he was perfectly aware of the difference in meaning. In this blog I will look at some other reasons for mixing up words and give you some tips on how to choose the correct word.

Literal translation from English to Dutch

Sometimes, ironically, the path of logic actually leads us to choosing the wrong word. One of these ‘logical errors’ occurs through literal translation, like ‘Wat dag is het vandaag?’, where the word ‘wat’ (‘what’, literal translation) is used instead of the word ‘welke’ (which,  standard Dutch). Another logical error is when learners assume that the comparative of ‘vroeg’ (early) is ‘vroeger’, which is in complete accordance to the grammar rule ‘comparative = adjective + -er’. However, ‘vroeger’ refers to something that happened a long time ago, back in the day if you like. So if you want to say that you arrived somewhere earlier than expected, the word you need to use is ‘eerder’.

False Friends

Of course there are also  ‘false friends’: words that sound (almost) the same, look (almost) the same, but do not necessarily mean the same thing. One notorious example in the Dutch language is the word ‘zo’, which all of my students use, at least once incorrectly. This tiny word has several meanings, such as ‘in a minute’ (‘Ik kom zo.’) or ‘like that’ (‘Dit doe je zo.’). However, it does not mean ‘so’, the word you would use when you’ve reached a conclusion. Therefore, the sentence ‘Ik ben ziek, zo ik kan niet komen.’ is incorrect.

Is it a synonym?

Finally, there are some Dutch words that are regarded as synonyms by language learners when, in actual fact, they are not. Below, I will discuss three word pairs which my students often confuse with one another.

  • Betekenen / bedoelen (to mean): even though both of these words refer to ‘to mean’, they are not interchangeable. One of them, ‘betekenen’, refers to the actual meaning of a word or phrase, whereas ‘bedoelen’ refers to the intended meaning. If in doubt just ask yourself what question would you like answered: ‘What does IT mean?’ or ‘What do YOU mean?’
  • Weten / kennen (to know): the difference in meaning between ‘weten’ and ‘kennen’ is a bit hazy. Yet there is a difference in sentence structure that might help you decide which word to choose. ‘Weten’ is often followed by a question word (who, what, where, etc.) and ‘kennen’ is often followed by names of people or places. Please keep in mind that there is a difference between the sentences ‘Ik weet het niet.’ and ‘Ik ken het niet.’ Do you know what the difference is?
  • Begrijpen / verstaan (to understand): you could say that the difference between these words is that one (‘verstaan’) is a precondition for the other (‘begrijpen’). ‘Verstaan’ refers to understanding, in the sense of being able to distinguish what the other person is saying. ‘Begrijpen’ on the other hand refers to whether or not you understand the (intended) meaning of what is being said. In other words, if you have trouble with ‘verstaan’, you ask a person ‘Can you REPEAT that?’. If ‘begrijpen’ is the problem, you ask ‘Can you REPHRASE that?’.

Are there any word pairs that you always mix up and would like to learn more about? Then please contact Language Partners at 088 – 02 88 000 or fill out our contact form. Our project coordinators will gladly advise you on a course tailored to suit your needs.

Taaltrainer Vika

Over de auteur

Vika Lukina werkt als NT2-trainer voor Language Partners.
Ze is gespecialiseerd in de branches ICT, onderwijs en voeding.

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