New in the Glossary of Confusing Words: Might/May, Scared/Afraid, Called/Known As

dictionary and thesaurusLast week’s entry to the Glossary of Confusing Words was all about pairs of words that have similar meanings, but slight distinctions in use. Well, apparently that post inspired many more of you to submit word pairs of your own!

So here are three more pairs of words for you!

Might/May

These words were submitted to the Glossary by two different people. One of them asked:

“My child may have been killed by a car”. Is she uncertain as to the fate of her little lamb, or has she rescued the capering young goat in the nick of time?

Both “might” and “may” express uncertainty and possibility. In the example above, the women does not know whether or not her child has been killed by the car. And she equally could have said, “My child might have been killed by a car” to express the same thought.

Some grammar sticklers might (or may!) say that “may” is used for the present tense and “might” for the past tense, but as far as I know, people don’t really observe that distinction – not even in formal writing.

Scared/Afraid

This word pair was also submitted twice. One of the people who suggested it asked which of these two sentences would be correct:

I was scared to go into the _____.
I was afraid to go into the _______.

In this example, scared and afraid are complete synonyms, and both sentences are correct. To be scared or afraid is to be frightened.

The second person who submitted these words noted:

I almost never hear or see the word afraid used on TV or in written work any more. It is almost like writers today have forgotten on never learned the word afraid. Have you noticed this as well?

I don’t know about that, but it is probably more common to use “scared” than “afraid” when expressing fear. It just comes off sounding a bit less formal.

You can also use the word “afraid” to express regret or apology. In that case, the word “scared” is not a synonym.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Called/Known As

“Called,” “known as” and “named” are all ways to identify someone or something. This is a case where the British usage is different than the American one, so if you’ve learned British English, pay attention.

Compare these three sentences:

1) “The teacher is named John.”
2) “The teacher is called John.”
3) “The teacher is known as John.”

In American English, only the first sentence says definitively that the teacher’s name is John.

Unlike in British English, where “named” and “called” are synonyms, in American English, the second sentence could suggest that John is not his real name (“His name is Jonathan, but he’s called John.”). The third sentence would certainly suggest that John is not his real name.

For inanimate objects, it’s more common to use “called” when identifying something. “Named” would only be used in cases where something has an official or legal name, and even then it’s usually interchangeable with “called.”

“It’s called a Philips head screwdriver.”
“The song is called Tonight.”
“I’m calling my company the Voice of America.”
“I’m naming my company the Voice of America.”

But even with inanimate objects, “known as” would imply that you’re giving a nickname or colloquial name rather than its actual name.

Have a word to suggest for our Glossary of Confusing Words? Leave your submissions in the comments, or use the form below.