False Friends: Sympathetic v Nice, Realise v Accomplish
Found a word that sounds the same in English and your native language? Beware — you may have stumbled upon a false friend.
At best, they make your English as clear as mud. At worst, they are downright embarrassing.
False friends (or cognates) are words that look or sound similar in English and your native language. But they actually mean something completely different.
Let’s take a look at two cognates that French speakers often mix up.
Sympathetic versus Nice
Incorrect: John is really sympathetic. He says hi to me every morning.
Correct: John is really nice. He says hi to me every morning.
The French word ‘sympathique’ means ‘nice’ or ‘friendly’. It’s so similar to the word ‘sympathetic’ that French speakers wield it the same way.
But it will taint your English and cause confusion.
In English, sympathetic means someone who feels or shows sympathy and compassion for someone.
- The doctor was really sympathetic about my back problem, instead of just brushing me off.
- I keep trying to tell him about my problems, but he’s not a sympathetic listener.
It’s possible to be both sympathetic and unfriendly.
For example, your psychiatrist might commiserate with you about your problems. But she may be rude to her receptionist.
So next time you want to use the word sympathetic in English, do you mean:
- The person is compassionate (correct)?
- The person is nice or friendly (incorrect)?
Realise versus to Carry Out
Incorrect: I realised that task yesterday.
Correct: I carried out that task yesterday.
Incorrect: The building work was realised by a local contractor.
Correct: The building work was accomplished by a local contractor.
This is a true frenemy of the French speaker. The English word ‘realise’ sounds and looks like the French word ‘realiser’.
But if you mix up these words the quality of your English will suffer.
In French, the verb ‘realiser’ means to both accomplish something and to understand something clearly.
In English, ‘to realise’ generally means ‘to understand’ or ‘to become aware of something’.
- He realised he had misunderstood the question.
- I realised something had gone wrong.
So before you use the verb ‘to realise’ in a sentence, ask yourself – do you mean:
- You understand something (correct)?
- You accomplished something, or to carry something out (incorrect)?
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