Misused Words

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Adverse means detrimental and does not mean averse or disinclined.

  • Correct: There were adverse effects. / I'm not averse to doing that.

Appraise means to ascertain the value of and does not mean to apprise or to inform.

  • Correct: I appraised the jewels. / I apprised him of the situation.

As far as means the same as but cannot be used the same way as as for.

  • Correct: As far as the money is concerned... / As for the money...

Begs the question means assumes what it should be proving and does not mean raises the question.

  • Correct: When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting 'German quality,' but that just begs the question.

Cliché is a noun and is not an adjective.

  • Correct: Shakespeare used a lot of clichés. / The plot was so clichéd.

Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.

  • Correct: His sales pitch was not credible. / The con man took advantage of credulous people.

Criteria is the plural, not the singular of criterion.

  • Correct: These are important criteria.

Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun.

  • Correct: This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.

Dichotomy means two mutually exclusive alternatives and does not mean difference or discrepancy.

  • Correct: There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers. / There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.

Discreet means tactful or avoiding embarrassment, while discrete means separate or individually distinct.

  • Correct: The teacher was discreet in discussing the student's behavior. / Lemons and oranges are two discrete fruits.

Disinterested means unbiased and does not mean uninterested.

  • Correct: The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge. / Why are you so uninterested in my story?

Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness.

  • Correct: The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.

Flaunt means to show off and does not mean to flout.

  • Correct: She flaunted her abs. / She flouted the rules.

Fortuitous means coincidental or unplanned and does not mean fortunate.

  • Correct: Running into my old friend was fortuitous. / It was fortunate that I had a good amount of savings after losing my job.

Hone means to sharpen and does not mean to home in on or to converge upon.

  • Correct: She honed her writing skills. / We're homing in on a solution.

Hot button means an emotional, divisive controversy and does not mean a hot topic.

  • Correct: She tried to stay away from the hot button of abortion. / Drones are a hot topic in the tech world.

Ironic means uncannily incongruent and does not mean inconvenient or unfortunate.

  • Correct: It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory. / It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.

Irregardless is not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective.

  • Correct: Regardless of how you feel, it's objectively the wrong decision. / Everyone gets a vote, irrespective of their position.

Literally means in actual fact and does not mean figuratively.

  • Correct: I didn't mean for you to literally run over here. / I'd rather die than listen to another one of his lectures — figuratively speaking, of course!

Mitigate means to alleviate and does not mean to militate or to provide reasons for.

  • Correct: The spray should mitigate the bug problem. / Their inconceivable differences will militate against the treaty.

New Age means spiritualistic, holistic and does not mean modern, futuristic.

  • Correct: He is a fan of New Age mindfulness techniques. / That TV screen is made from a high-end modern glass.

Noisome means smelly and does not mean noisy.

  • Correct: I covered my nose when I walked past the noisome dump. / I covered my ears when I heard the noisy motorcycle speed by.

Opportunism means seizing or exploiting opportunities and does not mean creating or promoting opportunities.

  • Correct: His opportunism brought him to the head of the company. / The party ran on promoting economic opportunities for the middle class.

Parameter means a variable and does not mean a boundary condition, a limit.

  • Correct: The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates. / We need to work within budgetary limits.

Phenomena is a plural count noun — not a mass noun.

  • Correct: The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena observed by the telescope.

Practicable means easily put into practice and does not mean practical.

  • Correct: His French was practicable in his job, which required frequent trips to Paris. / Learning French before taking the job was a practical decision.

Protagonist means active character and does not mean proponent.

  • Correct: Vito Corleone was the protagonist in 'The Godfather.' / He is a proponent of solar energy.

Refute means to prove to be false and does not mean to allege to be false, to try to refute.

  • Correct: His work refuted the theory that the Earth was flat.

Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are used in the past participle — not the past tense.

  • Correct: I've shrunk my shirt. / I shrank my shirt.

Simplistic means naively or overly simple and does not mean simple or pleasingly simple.

  • Correct: His simplistic answer suggested he wasn't familiar with the material. / She liked the chair's simple look.

Untenable means indefensible or unsustainable and does not mean painful or unbearable.

  • Correct: Now that all the facts have been revealed, that theory is untenable. / Her death brought him unbearable sadness.

Urban legend means an intriguing and widely circulated but false story and does not mean someone who is legendary in a city.

  • Correct: Alligators in the sewers is an urban legend. / Al Capone was a legendary gangster in Chicago.

An effect means an influence; to effect means to put into effect; to affect means either to influence or to fake.

  • Correct: They had a big effect on my style. / The law effected changes at the school. / They affected my style. / He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.

To lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to recline; to lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to set down; to lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to fib.

  • Correct: He lies on the couch all day. / He lays a book upon the table. / He lies about what he does.

Adapted from Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin, 2014).