Confusing words (les faux amis). Are you sensible or sensitive? Or both?

Some words are identical or very similar in both French and English. But that doesn’t mean they have the same meaning.

Some are related in meaning and some are what linguists call false friends or les faux amis.

Do you have some favourite faux amis? Leave a comment below with some of the words that confuse you.

Here are some. Tell me which words I have missed…

Society means groups of people living together in communities. A society is NOT a company or a firm.

You can say: I work for a company that makes office furniture.

You can also say: Racism exists at all levels of society.

You cannot say: Our society offers English language courses. You would say: Our company teaches English in Geneva.

There is an exception, of course. There is a type of bank called a building society which lends money to people who want to buy a house. People keep their money in a building society.

 Society, by Eddie Vedder from the film Into The Wild

An avocado is a green fruit that is quite delicious and extremely popular. Not to be confused with un/e avocat (French), a lawyer who is expensive, not so tasty, and not so popular.

You can sit, take or do an exam. When you get the results, you will know if you have passed (succeeded) or failed your exam.

You can say: I sat the exam last Friday and I got the results yesterday. I passed with a B. (I was successful).

You can also say: I was so stressed during the exam that I passed out (fainted).

A résumé (of something) is a short summary or account of somethingIt comes from French and has been absorbed into English. It is pronounced as in French. Résumé has two meanings: 1. a general summary and 2. a Curriculum Vitae which summarizes your professional life.

The verb to summarize (something) is to give a summary of something (= a statement of the main points). It is the act of making a résumé.

You can say: The results of the research are summarized at the end of the chapter.

The verb to resume means to begin again or continues after an interruption.

You can say: She resumed her career after an interval of six years. The noise resumed, louder than before. There is no sign of the peace talks resuming.

You cannot say: She resumed the main point of the meeting. You should say: She summarised the main points of the meeting

Medicine is what you take when you are sick.  It is also the name of the subject that you study at university if you want to become a doctor. A doctor, your GP or a physician prescribe medicine. You buy your medicine at the pharmacy or chemist.

Expression: Laughter is the best medicine (laughter is good for you).

You can say: She studied medicine and she is now a doctor. The doctor told me to take the medicine three times a day.

A library is where you borrow books free of charge. A bookshop or bookstore is where you buy books. Payot has the biggest bookstore in Geneva.

Be careful of the word envy. If you envy someone you have the feeling of wanting to be in the same situation as somebody else; the feeling of wanting something that somebody else has. It’s a form of intense jealousy. It is one of the seven deadly sins, according the Catholic teachings.

It is impossible to envy an ice-cream.

But you can say: I would love an ice-cream or I wish I had an ice-cream or I’d give my right hand for an ice-cream. You can also say: I envy you. You have a great job and a beautiful house and you’re always happy.

A stranger is someone you don’t know. You have not been introduced. A foreigner is someone from another country or another culture (non-Swiss). Read more here

A haven is place that is safe and peaceful where people or animals are protected. A tax haven is a place where taxes are very low. It is often secret and used by wealthy companies and individuals to hide money. There is no such place as a tax paradise. Sorry.

Baskets are containers for holding or carrying things. A shopping basket, picnic basket, a washing basket (for clothes). Baskets are NOT shoes. Shoes that we wear for sport are called trainers or runners.

Most people wear runners or trainers when they go jogging. A person who jogs is a jogger. You might wear shorts, or if it’s quite cold you might wear tracksuit pants or sweatpants. The activity is called jogging.

You can say: I always wear track suit pants when I go jogging in the winter.

As we are talking about clothing, it’s important to know that a bra in English is not a part of your body. It is an item of women’s under-clothing – un soutien gorge. The word bra is short for brassière and has nothing to do with drinking beer.

String or a piece of string is a piece of thin cord used for tying things, such as packages.

He wrapped the book in brown paper and tied it with string.  The key is hanging on a string by the door.

Women’s underwear that has a very narrow piece of material (thin like a piece of string) is called a thong.

A pair of thongs is a type of sandal (open shoe) that has a piece of leather, rubber, etc. that goes between the big toe and the toe next to it. Also known as flip-flops.

Brushing sounds very English. It is the activity to clean, polish, or make smooth with a brush (brossage). I brush my teeth, my hair and my shoes every day.

When your hair is wet or needs to be styled you can use a machine that blows hot air. This is called to blow dry (verb) or a blow dry (noun). The machine is called a blow dryer.

You can say: There is a blow dryer in our hotel room.

You can say: John please answer the phone. I am busy brushing the dog.

A facelift is a medical operation in which the skin on a person’s face is made tighter in order to make them look younger,

There is no such thing as a lifting is English.

You can say: I hurt my back while lifting the boxes.

Smoking is the activity of inhaling or breathing in a cigarette, cigar or other combustible substance. The black formal suit that James Bond often wears to the casino is a tuxedo.

 A jolly woman or man is a happy and cheerful person. They may not be attractive or pretty, but they are definitely happy, which is much more important.

A sympathetic person is kind to somebody who is hurt or sad; showing that they understand and care about your problems. A sympathy card is a card of condolence usually after someone has died.

The French word sympathique mean nice or friendly in English.

Sympathy for the Devil, by the Rolling Stones

People who are sympathetic are sensitive and caring. This mean that they are aware of, and able to understand other people and their feelings.

You can say:  She is very sensitive to other people’s feelings.

Sensitive can also be used  to describe  someone who is easily offended or upset. You can say: He’s very sensitive about his weight. She’s very sensitive to criticism.

A sensible person is someone able to make good judgement, based on reason and experience rather than emotion; practical. It’s a very positive term.

You can say: She’s a sensible sort of person. I think that’s a very sensible idea. Say something sensible. I think the sensible thing to do would be to take a taxi home. John is only 14, but hes very mature. He is very sensible for his age.

The Logical Song, by Supertramp

Photo top of the page: Unsplash


Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

7 réponses à “Confusing words (les faux amis). Are you sensible or sensitive? Or both?

  1. Funny post! Another common Faux Ami is capacity vs capability.
    Nobody has the capacity to understand astrophysics, and I certainly have not the capability.

  2. That is so useful, and such a good reminder!! Thank you, Garry !!
    I realise again how many mistakes I do when speaking English that I don’t even realise in the moment… Oops

    1. Yes, it is difficult when the words sound and look so similar.
      For your information: You ‘make’ a mistake, you don’t do a ‘mistake’.
      This will be my next blog – the verbs ‘to make’ and ‘to do’. In French is just the verb ‘faire’.
      But in English we can make a mess and make a mistake, even when we do our best when we do our homework..

  3. Bonjour et merci pour ce billet.
    Il y manque “actual”, “actually”, “current” qui ne sont pas “actuel”, “actuellement”, “courant”.

    1. Thanks for that. Actually, you are right.There is a lot of confusion around these words. This will be explored in blog 2 on les faux amis.

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