The Most Commonly Misused English Words

December 21st 2016

First, we learn to say words. Next, we learn to spell words. Finally, we learn to define and properly use words.

Well, most words at least.

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The English language is not easily mastered. Homonyms — words that are spelled or pronounced the same but mean different things — can be particularly challenging, which is why even the most highly educated English speakers get tripped up sometimes.

Steve Pinker, a linguist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University, compiled a list of the 58 most commonly misused words.

  • Adverse: Unfavorable or harmful; commonly confused with "averse," which means disinclined.
  • Appraise: To evaluate the value of something; commonly confused with "apprise," which means "to inform."
  • As far as: The same; commonly confused with the phrase "as for," which means "with regard to."
  • Begs the question: Implies a conclusion that isn't supported by evidence; commonly confused with "raises the question."
  • Bemused: Bewildered; commonly confused with "amused," which means entertained.
  • Cliché: A noun; commonly misused as an adjective.
  • Credible: Believable; commonly confused with "gullible."
  • Criteria: A plural word; commonly misused as a singular word. The singular is "criterion."
  • Data: A plural word; commonly used as a singular noun.
  • Depreciate: To decrease in value; commonly confused with "deprecate," which means to disapprove of.
  • Dichotomy: A division between two things; commonly confused with "a difference."
  • Disinterested: Unbiased; commonly confused with "uninterested."
  • Enervate: To cause someone to feel drained; commonly misused to mean "to energize."
  • Enormity: Extremely bad or morally wrong; commonly confused with "enormous."
  • Flaunt: To show off; commonly confused with "flout," which means "to openly disregard."
  • Flounder: To struggle helplessly; commonly confused with "founder," which means to fill with water and sink.
  • Fortuitous: To happen by chance; commonly confused with "fortunate."
  • Fulsome: Excessively flattering; commonly misused to mean "full or copious."
  • Homogeneous: Pronounced "home-genius." The word is commonly misspelled as "homogenous."
  • Hone: Sharpen or refine; commonly misused in the phrase "home in on," which means to move toward a goal or target.
  • Hot button: An emotionally or politically charged issue; commonly confused with "hot topic."
  • Hung: Suspended; commonly misused to mean "suspended from the neck until dead."
  • Intern (verb): To detain or imprison; commonly confused with "inter," which means to bury a body.
  • Ironic: To happen in a way that's opposite to expectations; commonly misused to mean "unfortunate."
  • Irregardless: Not a word, but commonly confused with "regardless."
  • Literally: A fact; commonly confused with "figuratively," or metaphorically.
  • Luxuriant: Rich or lush; commonly confused with "luxurious."
  • Meretricious: To appear attractive but lack value or sincerity; commonly confused with "meritorious," which means to deserve praise.
  • Mitigate: Alleviate; commonly confused with "militate," which means to be "a powerful or conclusive factor in preventing."
  • New Age: Spiritualistic and holistic; commonly misused to mean modern or futuristic.
  • Noisome: Smelly; commonly misused to mean noisy."
  • Nonplussed: Surprised or confused; commonly misused to mean bored.
  • Opportunism: Exploiting opportunities; commonly misused to mean creating opportunities.
  • Parameter: A variable; commonly misused to mean a condition or limit.
  • Phenomena: A plural noun; commonly misused as a mass noun.
  • Politically correct: Inoffensive or appropriate; commonly misused to mean fashionable.
  • Practicable: To be able to put together successfully; commonly confused with "practical."
  • Proscribe: To condemn; commonly confused with "prescribe," which means to recommend.
  • Protagonist: An active or lead character; commonly confused with "proponent."
  • Refute: To prove something false; commonly misused to mean "to allege to be false."
  • Reticent: Restrained, or shy; commonly confused with "reluctant."
  • Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk: All of these words are used in the past participle and are commonly misused in the past tense.
  • Simplistic: Overly simple; commonly misused to mean "pleasantly simple."
  • Staunch: Loyal; commonly confused with "stanch," which means to stop the flow.
  • Tortuous: Twisting; commonly confused with "torturous."
  • Unexceptionable: Not open to objection; commonly confused with "unexceptional," which means ordinary.
  • Untenable: Not sustainable; commonly misused to mean painful or unbearable.
  • Urban legend: A false and widely circulated story; commonly misused to mean "someone who is legendary in a city."
  • Verbal: In linguistic form; commonly confused with "spoken."
  • An effect: An influence. To effect: To put something into effect. To affect: To influence or fake.
  • To lie (as in "lies, lay, has lain"): To recline. To lay (as in "lays, laid, has laid"): To set down. To lie (as in "lies, lied, has lied"): To fib.

The relative difficulty of the English language has a lot to do with the fact that so many of its words are derived from other languages such as French, Latin, and Greek. And unlike those other languages, the rules of English have been historically subject to debate, evolving over time. That has resulted in spelling mutations and sometimes confusing grammatical guidelines, leading some to conclude that English is one of the hardest languages to learn for non-native speakers.

"As native speakers, we rarely stop to think how illogical many of the things we say really are – we’re just used to them," the Oxford Royale Academy wrote in a 2014 blog post. "Unless you’ve been brought up speaking English, how can you possibly begin to learn all these oddities? It’s little wonder that people trying to learn English end up feeling confused."

[h/t The Independent]

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Are you guilty of misusing any of these words?

No 38%Yes 62%

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