by Liz Walter
Sometimes words look the same or similar in two different languages but have different meanings. We call these words ‘false friends’ because they seem as though they will be ‘friendly’ and easy to learn, but they trick us into making mistakes. In this post, I will discuss a few false friends with English: I have tried to pick ones that are problematic for speakers of several other languages.
An English word that often causes problems is actual (and the related adverb actually). This means ‘real’ or ‘not imaginary’ and it often adds emphasis to the thing it describes. To talk about things that happen or exist at the present time, you need the words current or currently.
I don’t want online help. I want to speak to an actual person.
He never actually met the president.
My current boss is very young.
Currently, there are no jobs available here.
Another common cause of confusion is eventual (and the adverb eventually). This means ‘in the end’ or ‘after a long period of time’. To talk about the possibility that something may happen, you need to use a word like possible or a modal verb such as might:
Eventually we reached an agreement.
The eventual cost of the building was much higher than expected.
We have a possible solution for your problem.
We might have to hire more staff.
A rather subtle false friend is sympathetic. When we describe someone as ‘sympathetic’, we usually mean that they care about our problems and are sorry about them. We use adjectives such as friendly or nice to describe someone we like. English does use ‘sympathetic’ to describe someone we like, but this is rather formal, and is more often applied to characters in books, movies, etc than to real people:
Adam wasn’t very sympathetic when I hurt my leg.
I met your sister. She’s really nice!
The doctor is portrayed as a sympathetic character.
I’ll end with a few more simple false friends. In English, your parents are only your mother and father: all the other people in your family are relations or relatives. Fabric is what your clothes are made from – the place where they are made is a factory. Money consists of paper money and coins – if you want to ask someone to give you coins for your paper money, you need to ask for change. Finally, if you are embarrassed, you are feeling shy or ashamed, but you are not pregnant (having a baby)!
So be careful with these words. There are lots of false friends waiting to trick us, and you will probably be able to add more examples to the ones I’ve discussed here.