Research by Bob Little Press & PR into the potential pitfalls in learning English as a foreign language has revealed the 11 English words which cause the most confusion to non-native students of the English language – particularly in a business context.


When using any language, it’s vitally important to know what the words you’re using really mean. As the American writer, Mark Twain, once said, ‘The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug’.


Apparently, the top 11 English words that confuse students of the English language are:

  • Actual – in the sense of ‘real’ or ‘genuine’. In many languages (German: aktuell; Czech: aktuální) the first meaning that comes to the minds of non-native English speakers who have these languages as their mother tongue is ‘topical’ or ‘current’.
  • Damage (harm or injury caused to something) versus damages (a sum of money claimed or warded in compensation for a loss or injury).
  • Experience (practical acquaintance with facts or events – and the resulting knowledge and skill) versus experiences (for example, having a nice time on holiday).
  • Prospect (something that you expect or know is going to happen) versus prospect (potential customers). To add to the confusion, the Czech word ‘prospekt’ means a leaflet.
  • Customer versus client. A client may be the person who buys goods or a service from you but the customer (for example, someone who is employed by the ‘client’) is the person who consumes that good or service. It is by no means certain that the customer and client are the same people – although they could be – and this means adopting a different marketing strategy towards each one.
  • Brand equity versus brand value. This illustrates the difference between American and British English. British English tends to talk about ‘Brand value’ but Americans prefer ‘Brand equity’. So, on a basic level, these two terms are the same.

However, ‘brand equity’ refers to the value of the brand that is ‘seen’ – that is, which can be measured in monetary terms and portrayed on a balance sheet. Brand value, on the other hand, is this too but also includes intangibles, such as what used to be called ‘goodwill’ created by the brand – that is the ‘feel good factor’ that customers have when they buy that particular brand. This ‘feeling’ can’t be measured or quantified and so can’t be stated objectively. Yet it is of value to the organisation which owns the brand – and should be taken into account if that brand was to be sold.

  • Hard versus hardly (an adverb, meaning only just or certainly not).
  • Lose versus loose.
  • Lend versus borrow.
  • Yours sincerely versus Yours faithfully – the convention of ending that letters that begin ‘Dear Sir’ with ‘Yours faithfully’, but letters that begin ‘Dear Mr Smith’ with ‘Yours sincerely’.
  • Data is…. The thought that ‘data’ is treated as singular, and so people say that ‘data is…’ rather than ‘data are…’ is confusing.