There’s no two ways about it: English is a complicated language. It’s full of subtleties that even proficient writers sometimes miss. It is ironic, isn’t it, how commonly misused words shape our skills as writers and proofreaders?
Actually…is that ironic? Does anyone really know the definition of ironic, and does it even matter if its misuse is so common that the intended meaning has changed? Should we take it literally (meaning “verbatim”), or literally (meaning “figuratively”)?
Don’t worry; our heads hurt too. Navigating the nuances of the English language can be treacherous without a map. Elite Authors wants every writer to succeed, and we’re here to give you the tools to do so. Below you’ll find a guide to the most commonly misused words, the most commonly used words that aren’t words, and obsolete words that have been revamped or replaced in modern usage.
Under the umbrella of commonly misused words fall two categories: words that we often confuse for other words that sound (or look) similar and words that simply mean something other than what we commonly use them for.
Words that fall into this first category, such as entitled vs. titled, are often related. To clear up this confusion, here is a table translating ten words we use into the words we actually mean:
|The Word We Use||What We Mean to Say|
|Adverse: unfavorable; hazardous||Averse: opposed|
|Bemused: confused||Amused: entertained; pleasantly diverted|
|Disinterested: impartial; unbiased||Uninterested: not interested|
|I.e.: that is; to elaborate||E.g.: for example|
|Inflammable: burnable||Nonflammable: not burnable|
|Infer: to draw a conclusion||Imply: to suggest, indirectly|
|Literally: actually; word for word||Figuratively: metaphorically|
|Nauseous: causes nausea||Nauseated: suffering from nausea|
|Sympathy: understanding of another’s circumstances||Empathy: the ability to imagine oneself in another’s circumstances|
|Travesty: an inaccurate or distorted imitation||Tragedy: a situation, event, or action that causes extreme sadness or pain|
Worried about your word usage? Here’s a more extensive list of easily confused words so that you can double-check that dubious word you have in mind.
Sometimes it isn’t the word itself that is difficult to remember. For many words that are often used incorrectly, it’s the definition that is forgotten or misremembered.
These five words fall into this second category of misuse:
|Misused Word||Common Usage|
|Aggressive: ready to attack; pursuing aims by means of force||enthusiastic; driven|
|Compel: to force against one’s will to do something||to want to do something, often suddenly|
|Ironic: opposite of what is expected, appropriate, or fitting||funny; coincidental; sarcastic|
|Peruse: to examine in depth; to read thoroughly and carefully||to skim|
|Redundant: duplicate; surplus to requirements||useless; unable to perform its function|
Language is a living thing. Words and their definitions have an expiration date determined by popularity and usage. Likewise, we are sometimes unaware of the existence of a word that fits our needs—sometimes because it doesn’t exist. Other times, we change a word because it just doesn’t sound right, even if it is. These changes to and the improper use of words are what force English (like any language) to evolve. They are as essential to the growth and life of a language as a beating heart.
Sometimes, instead of mistaking one word for another or using it incorrectly, we make up a new word to suit our needs. Shakespeare did it, so why can’t we? But creating new words is tricky—the meaning gets muddled, and sticklers for “proper” English howl at the moon when neologisms and nonstandard words are used to replace an existing word that has worked perfectly well in the past.
Here are five commonly used words that are not words (or at least not standard words) and how to replace them:
|Not a Word||Use Instead|
|Ain’t: is not; are not; have not; am not||Isn’t; aren’t; haven’t (Use positive contractions instead, such as “I’m not.”)|
|Alot: many; much; a large quantity||A lot; many; much; a large quantity. (“A lot” is a rather informal and nonspecific phrase.)|
|Firstly: first, especially if a sequence is to follow||First; in the first place; primarily; to begin with|
|Irregardless: without regard to||Regardless; without regard to; in spite of; despite|
|Supposably: a product of supposition||Supposedly; allegedly; presumably|
The improper use of words sounds like a really bad thing, doesn’t it? However, that is exactly how language evolves and grows. Eventually, after decades (and, sometimes, centuries) of a word’s misuse, its definition begins to shift to include or prioritize the incorrect definition. There is no single, all-knowing entity that governs the English language. Literally has a secondary definition in many dictionaries that includes its use as a synonym for figuratively or to add emphasis, and decimate has become an accepted synonym of the more general destroy.
Here are five other examples of words whose meanings have changed or are changing to match their common usage:
|Word||What It Meant Before||What It Means Now|
|Awful||Full of awe; inspiring||Terrible; very bad|
|Enormity||Extreme wickedness; a monstrous evil||Enormousness|
|Factoid||A half truth; not entirely factual||A trivial fact|
|Fantastic||Of fantasy; apart from reality||Lovely; very good|
|Terrific||Causing terror||Lovely; very good|
Sometimes, instead of changing the meaning of the word, we change the word itself. Here are five obsolete words that have been replaced or altered over the years but that sometimes find their way into our writing and speech:
|Old Word||Meaning||What We Say Now|
|Conversate||To speak about something at length||Converse|
|Crapulous||Feeling ill after excessive drinking||Hangover|
|Monsterful||Extraordinary and wonderful||Awesome|
|Orientate||To align based on direction||Orient|
As we said in the beginning: English is a complicated language. It’s ever evolving; it’s a living, breathing thing. So if you’ve used any of these commonly misused words incorrectly, don’t despair! In one hundred years, the scholars (and dictionaries) might be on your side, after all. In the meantime, try to err on the side of tradition, but if you must use a nonstandard word or definition, just tell the powers that be that you’re keeping the language alive.