Advertising
Advertising

Harvard Linguist Identifies These 50 Commonly Misused Words

Harvard Linguist Identifies These 50 Commonly Misused Words

Good writing is hard work. Anyone who has tried writing for a living or just had to pass a simple message across knows writing to communicate exactly what you mean is not easy. The angst and tripping over words is only part of what makes writing hard.

If your vocabulary lets you down sometimes, Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker feels your pain. The linguist is acutely aware that word fails are all too common and they can make even the smartest among us look dumb. He is determined to help with that problem.

In his latest book, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” Pinker explores common words and phrases that people stumble over. A short and delightful book, “The Sense of Style” has been dubbed the modern version of Strunk and White’s classic “The Elements of Style,” only better because it is based on linguistics and updated for the 21st century.

We couldn’t agree more.

Here are some of the most commonly misused words and phrases according to Pinker with examples drawn directly from his book along with some of our own. These will help you communicate exactly what you intend and also show you how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. Enjoy.

1. Adverse

Means detrimental and does not mean averse or disinclined.

Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”

2. 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.”

3. 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.

4. 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 …

5. 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.”

6. Bemused

Means bewildered and does not mean amused.

Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.

7. Cliché

This is a noun and is not an adjective.

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

8. 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.

Advertising

9. Criteria

This is the plural, not the singular of criterion.

Correct: These are important criteria.

10. Data

This is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”]

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

11. Depreciate

Means to decrease in value and does not mean to deprecate or to disparage.

Correct: My car has depreciated a lot over the years. / She deprecated his efforts.

12. 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.

13. 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?

14. Enervate

Means to sap or to weaken and does not mean to energize.

Correct: That was an enervating rush hour commute. / That was an energizing cappuccino.

15. Enormity

Means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness. [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.]

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

16. Flaunt

Means to show off and does not mean to flout.

Correct: “She flaunted her abs.” / “She flouted the rules.”

17. Flounder

Means to flop around ineffectually and does not mean to founder or to sink to the bottom.

Correct: “The indecisive chairman floundered.” / “The headstrong chairman foundered.”

18. 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.

19. Fulsome

Means unctuous or excessively or insincerely complimentary and does not mean full or copious.

Advertising

Correct: She didn’t believe his fulsome love letter. / The bass guitar had a full sound.

20. Homogeneous

This is pronounced as homo-genius and “homogenous” is not a word but a corruption of homogenized.

Correct: The population was not homogeneous; it was a melting pot.

21. 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.

22. 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.

23. Hung

Means suspended and does not mean suspended from the neck until dead.

Correct: I hung the picture on my wall. / The prisoner was hanged.

24. Intern (verb)

Means to detain or to imprison and does not mean to inter or to bury.

Correct: The rebels were interned in the military jail. / The king was interred with his jewels.

25. 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.

26. Irregardless

This is not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective. [Note: Pinker acknowledges that certain schools of thought regard “irregardless” as simply non-standard, but he insists it should not even be granted that.]

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

27. 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!

28. Luxuriant

Means abundant or florid and does not mean luxurious.

Correct: The poet has a luxuriant imagination. / The car’s fine leather seats were luxurious.

29. Meretricious

Means tawdry or offensively insincere and does not mean meritorious.

Correct: We rolled our eyes at the meretricious speech. / The city applauded the meritorious mayor.

Advertising

30. 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.

31. 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.

32. 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.

33. Nonplussed

Means stunned, bewildered and does not mean bored, unimpressed.

Correct: “The market crash left the experts nonplussed.” / “His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.”

34. 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.

35. 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.

36. Phenomena

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

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

37. Politically correct

Means dogmatically left-liberal and does not mean fashionable, trendy. [Note: Pinker considers its contemporary roots as a pejorative term by American and British conservatives, not its more casual use as meaning inoffensive.]

Correct: “The theory that little boys fight because of the way they have been socialized is the politically correct one.” / Williamsburg is the trendy place to live in Brooklyn.

38. 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.

39. Proscribe

Means to condemn, to forbid and does not mean to prescribe, to recommend, to direct.

Correct: The policy proscribed employees from drinking at work. / The doctor prescribed an antibiotic.

40. Refute

Means to prove to be false and does not mean to allege to be false, to try to refute. [Note: That is, it must be used only in factual cases.]

Advertising

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

41. Reticent

Means shy, restrained and does not mean reluctant.

Correct: He was too reticent to ask her out. / “When rain threatens, fans are reluctant to buy tickets to the ballgame.”

42. Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk

These are used in the past participle — not the past tense.

Correct: I’ve shrunk my shirt. / I shrank my shirt.

43. 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.

44. Staunch

Means loyal, sturdy and does not mean to stanch a flow.

Correct: Her staunch supporters defended her in the press. / The nurse was able to stanch the bleeding.

45. Tortuous

Means twisting and does not mean torturous.

Correct: The road through the forest was tortuous. / Watching their terrible acting for two hours was a torturous experience.

46. Unexceptionable

Means not worthy of objection and does not mean unexceptional, ordinary.

Correct: “No one protested her getting the prize, because she was an unexceptionable choice.” / “They protested her getting the prize, because she was an unexceptional choice.”

47. 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.

48. 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.

49. Verbal

Means in linguistic form and does not mean oral, spoken.

Correct: Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.

50. To lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain)

Means to recline; whereas to lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to set down; and, 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.

More by this author

David K. William

David is a publisher and entrepreneur who tries to help professionals grow their business and careers, and gives advice for entrepreneurs.

10 Reasons Why Some People Feel Like They Don’t Have Enough Time 25 Memory Exercises That Actually Help You Remember More 10 Mini Hacks to Overcome Procrastination 12 Simple Ways to Boost Your Confidence Right Now 10 Amazing Health Benefits Of Beer You Probably Never Knew

Trending in Communication

1 11 Red Flags in a Relationship Not To Ignore 2 10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When Feeling Stuck 3 Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating 4 7 Simple Ways To Be Famous In One Year 5 How To Feel Happier (10 Scienece-Backed Ways)

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on February 11, 2021

Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

How often have you said something simple, only to have the person who you said this to misunderstand it or twist the meaning completely around? Nodding your head in affirmative? Then this means that you are being unclear in your communication.

Communication should be simple, right? It’s all about two people or more talking and explaining something to the other. The problem lies in the talking itself, somehow we end up being unclear, and our words, attitude or even the way of talking becomes a barrier in communication, most of the times unknowingly. We give you six common barriers to communication, and how to get past them; for you to actually say what you mean, and or the other person to understand it as well…

The 6 Walls You Need to Break Down to Make Communication Effective

Think about it this way, a simple phrase like “what do you mean” can be said in many different ways and each different way would end up “communicating” something else entirely. Scream it at the other person, and the perception would be anger. Whisper this is someone’s ear and others may take it as if you were plotting something. Say it in another language, and no one gets what you mean at all, if they don’t speak it… This is what we mean when we say that talking or saying something that’s clear in your head, many not mean that you have successfully communicated it across to your intended audience – thus what you say and how, where and why you said it – at times become barriers to communication.[1]

Perceptual Barrier

The moment you say something in a confrontational, sarcastic, angry or emotional tone, you have set up perceptual barriers to communication. The other person or people to whom you are trying to communicate your point get the message that you are disinterested in what you are saying and sort of turn a deaf ear. In effect, you are yelling your point across to person who might as well be deaf![2]

Advertising

The problem: When you have a tone that’s not particularly positive, a body language that denotes your own disinterest in the situation and let your own stereotypes and misgivings enter the conversation via the way you talk and gesture, the other person perceives what you saying an entirely different manner than say if you said the same while smiling and catching their gaze.

The solution: Start the conversation on a positive note, and don’t let what you think color your tone, gestures of body language. Maintain eye contact with your audience, and smile openly and wholeheartedly…

Attitudinal Barrier

Some people, if you would excuse the language, are simply badass and in general are unable to form relationships or even a common point of communication with others, due to their habit of thinking to highly or too lowly of them. They basically have an attitude problem – since they hold themselves in high esteem, they are unable to form genuine lines of communication with anyone. The same is true if they think too little of themselves as well.[3]

The problem: If anyone at work, or even in your family, tends to roam around with a superior air – anything they say is likely to be taken by you and the others with a pinch, or even a bag of salt. Simply because whenever they talk, the first thing to come out of it is their condescending attitude. And in case there’s someone with an inferiority complex, their incessant self-pity forms barriers to communication.

Advertising

The solution: Use simple words and an encouraging smile to communicate effectively – and stick to constructive criticism, and not criticism because you are a perfectionist. If you see someone doing a good job, let them know, and disregard the thought that you could have done it better. It’s their job so measure them by industry standards and not your own.

Language Barrier

This is perhaps the commonest and the most inadvertent of barriers to communication. Using big words, too much of technical jargon or even using just the wrong language at the incorrect or inopportune time can lead to a loss or misinterpretation of communication. It may have sounded right in your head and to your ears as well, but if sounded gobbledygook to the others, the purpose is lost.

The problem: Say you are trying to explain a process to the newbies and end up using every technical word and industry jargon that you knew – your communication has failed if the newbie understood zilch. You have to, without sounding patronizing, explain things to someone in the simplest language they understand instead of the most complex that you do.

The solution: Simplify things for the other person to understand you, and understand it well. Think about it this way: if you are trying to explain something scientific to a child, you tone it down to their thinking capacity, without “dumbing” anything down in the process.[4]

Advertising

Emotional Barrier

Sometimes, we hesitate in opening our mouths, for fear of putting our foot in it! Other times, our emotional state is so fragile that we keep it and our lips zipped tightly together lest we explode. This is the time that our emotions become barriers to communication.[5]

The problem: Say you had a fight at home and are on a slow boil, muttering, in your head, about the injustice of it all. At this time, you have to give someone a dressing down over their work performance. You are likely to transfer at least part of your angst to the conversation then, and talk about unfairness in general, leaving the other person stymied about what you actually meant!

The solution: Remove your emotions and feelings to a personal space, and talk to the other person as you normally would. Treat any phobias or fears that you have and nip them in the bud so that they don’t become a problem. And remember, no one is perfect.

Cultural Barrier

Sometimes, being in an ever-shrinking world means that inadvertently, rules can make cultures clash and cultural clashes can turn into barriers to communication. The idea is to make your point across without hurting anyone’s cultural or religious sentiments.

Advertising

The problem: There are so many ways culture clashes can happen during communication and with cultural clashes; it’s not always about ethnicity. A non-smoker may have problems with smokers taking breaks; an older boss may have issues with younger staff using the Internet too much.

The solution: Communicate only what is necessary to get the point across – and eave your personal sentiments or feelings out of it. Try to be accommodative of the other’s viewpoint, and in case you still need to work it out, do it one to one, to avoid making a spectacle of the other person’s beliefs.[6]

Gender Barrier

Finally, it’s about Men from Mars and Women from Venus. Sometimes, men don’t understand women and women don’t get men – and this gender gap throws barriers in communication. Women tend to take conflict to their graves, literally, while men can move on instantly. Women rely on intuition, men on logic – so inherently, gender becomes a big block in successful communication.[7]

The problem: A male boss may inadvertently rub his female subordinates the wrong way with anti-feminism innuendoes, or even have problems with women taking too many family leaves. Similarly, women sometimes let their emotions get the better of them, something a male audience can’t relate to.

The solution: Talk to people like people – don’t think or classify them into genders and then talk accordingly. Don’t make comments or innuendos that are gender biased – you don’t have to come across as an MCP or as a bra-burning feminist either. Keep gender out of it.

And remember, the key to successful communication is simply being open, making eye contact and smiling intermittently. The battle is usually half won when you say what you mean in simple, straightforward words and keep your emotions out of it.

Reference

Read Next