English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What is the most natural way to express "confuse" in the sense of "unable to tell apart" as in following sentence:

John always confuses the twins and is never able to tell them apart.

I don't want it to sound like he is making the twins confused.

To make the question clear, I would like to add one more sentence where this discussion might be applicable "Do not confuse activity with productivity".

share|improve this question
Some people have voted to close this as general reference. I disagree, because the questioner is looking for "the most natural way to express" rather than "the most suitable synonym". – Pitarou Oct 17 '12 at 13:25
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Although one of the meanings of confuse fits your sentence, the word is ambiguous in this case and I wouldn't recommend using it (what I guess you already know, since you asked this question).

For one, I'd like to point out for you to realize that you can simply skip that part altogether and end up with:

John is never able to tell the twins apart.

What more do you need? Nothing, really. But if you feel like you do, I'd recommend:

John always mistakes the twins for one another and is never able to tell them apart.

share|improve this answer
The "mistakes" part comes close to what I was looking for. Thanks :-) – Global Sink Oct 18 '12 at 8:08

You could say:

John always mixes up the twins and is never able to tell them apart.

share|improve this answer
But if you're mixed up you might be confused. I think either works with the explanatory conjunction. – Robusto Oct 16 '12 at 20:03
@Robusto I think that the point is to not sound like you are befuddling the twins rather than being befuddled yourself. This ambiguity is, IMO, more pronounced when confuses is used. There's a difference between asking "Am I confusing you?" and "Am I mixing you up?". – coleopterist Oct 16 '12 at 20:10
And yet "mixing up the twins" is how you might say it in that sentence. It's a small point. This whole question is a small question anyway. – Robusto Oct 16 '12 at 20:24
As a twin, I can affirm that what most people do with my sister and me is "mix us up", and to read that as messing with our heads (rather than us messing with theirs) is such a stretch as to be ridiculous. – Marthaª Oct 17 '12 at 16:45

How about distinguish, as in

John fails to distinguish the twins, and so is never able to tell them apart


John cannot distinguish the twins, and so is never able to tell them apart

share|improve this answer

Do you like conflate?

b : confuse

How about misidentify?

share|improve this answer
I don't think conflate really works in this context. Conflate has more of a sense of blending two ideas together into one. Misidentify seems apt though. – Kit Z. Fox Oct 16 '12 at 19:25
I also think that, given the OP's sentence, misidentify could well be talking about sets of twins. I grant you that this could apply to just about every suggestion. But it sounds a tad more acute when misidentify is used. – coleopterist Oct 16 '12 at 19:28

You are having trouble differentiating the twins. Differentiate is a verb defined as:

  1. Recognize or ascertain what makes (someone or something) different

    • children can differentiate the past from the present
  2. Identify differences between (two or more things or people)

    • he is unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality

Your sentence could be: John is unable to differentiate the twins. Or John has trouble differentiating the twins.

share|improve this answer

You asked for the most natural way to express the idea. I think a native speaker would most naturally express this in one of two ways. If you want to say that the two are distinguishable, but John has not yet learnt these distinctions, say:

John always gets the two mixed up / muddled up.

If they really are indistinguishable to John, say:

John can never tell them apart.

share|improve this answer

You might say

The twins always confuse John; he never can tell them apart.

This avoids passive, and “never can” is more concise than “is never able to”.

Like the passive construction “John is always confused by the twins”, my suggestion is open to misinterpretation: Are the twins actively doing something to confuse John? I think it is not much of an issue, but those concerned about the problem can use a sentence like one of the following.

The twins' looks always confuse John; he never can tell them apart.
How the twins look confuses John; he can't tell them apart.
The twins are so alike John can't tell them apart.

share|improve this answer
I think that introduces more potential for ambiguity than using the passive voice. Do the twins now do something active to confuse John? How do I tell? The passive voice actually has less of this implication. – itsbruce Oct 17 '12 at 21:52
@itsbruce, I edited re that – jwpat7 Oct 17 '12 at 22:02

Put it in the passive voice:

John is always confused by the twins and is never able to tell them apart.

End of ambiguity.

share|improve this answer
John may always be confused by math problems, too, but it doesn't mean he can't tell them apart. Your sentence is equivocal in a different way. – Merk Oct 18 '12 at 3:40
@Merk The rest of the sentence removes that confusion; I was only showing how the change affects the first part of the sentence. I think you should have been able to spot that, but edited for clarity. – itsbruce Oct 18 '12 at 5:59

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.