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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.]

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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.

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Last Updated on November 4, 2020

15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

Self-improvement doesn’t have to be big mind-blowing changes; it can actually be simple steps to improve upon what you already have to get you where you want to be.  However, what you will need is consistency, determination and wiliness to try some things that will stretch and challenge you.

Rather than setting your sights way off into the future, which leaves you feeling like you’ll never make it, you can start following these simple and effective self-improvement steps today.  So if you want to make an immediate impact on your life and are willing to take action, then keep reading— you’ll going to love these!

1. Be willing to work hard.

As with anything in life, if you want something, you’ve got to work hard to get it.  This doesn’t mean you burn the candle at both ends, leaving you exhausted and leaving your personal life in ruins.  It merely means that when you want something badly enough, you’ll put in the time to get there.  Action is what’s important here and the more ‘inspired’ the action is, the better the results in the end.

2. Make sure you have friends who you can talk to.

Sharing the load is important as with any self-improvement. If you can communicate with others and get feedback on how you are doing then that’s great.  We all need ‘cheerleaders’ in our corner to keep us going when times get hard, but you also need to have people who will tell you how it is even when you don’t want to hear it.  So make sure you have a good support network around you, especially those people whose opinions you respect.

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3. Adapt to your circumstances rather than over-thinking them.

Sometimes, we can hit a hard period. Perhaps you’ve lost your job or your partner has left you.  Instead of over analyzing the situation, learn to adapt to your circumstances and accept them as they are.  It’s not about making your circumstances into some kind of a drama; remember, what you focus on expands which means you’ll get more of it.  You then don’t become your problems and you’ll feel a lot less burdened by them.

4. Ensure that you use your time wisely.

Time is of the essence, some might say; whilst others will say that time is an illusion.  One thing we do know is that you have one life on this planet, so how you use that time is of the utmost importance.  So how can you use your time wisely? Only you know how to do that, but look at how you currently spend your days: do you sit working all day, get home, eat and then sit slumped in front of the TV for the rest of the evening?  Your time on this earth is precious, so isn’t it time to make use of the time you have left? Try something new, go for a walk, learn a new language or meditate but make sure it’s something you absolutely love.

5. Always be consistent.

A wonderful way to self-improvement is to make changes to how you do things.  For example, with your friends, are you always the unreliable one who bows out of an arrangement just before it happens? Or are you someone who starts a new exercise routine and then stops doing it 3 weeks into it?  Whatever it is and whatever you do, always be consistent. When you make a commitment, stick to it. It will improve your life immeasurably you’ll feel more confident and happier with yourself, especially because you’ll know that whatever you tackle, you’ll be able to consistently do it!

6. Go and find your happy place.

No, I’m not saying “place” as in popping to your local bar or restaurant and gorging yourself on your favorite drinks or food. What I’m saying is to find out what you love to do, what makes you happy and go there.  Your happy place is a place where you find peace, where you lose yourself and feel contented.  Meditation is a great way to find your happy place; it brings you back to you and ensures that you are always living in the present moment.

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7. Make sure you embrace all your emotions.

In life you are going to find that it throws you some difficult challenges, sometimes it will bring out your fears and lead you into uncertainty, and other times it will be joyful.  It’s important to embrace all emotions that come up in your life, embrace them wholeheartedly and understand why they are there and then let them go.  Try not to dismiss or resist them because remember “what you resist, persists,” so embrace them each and every time.

8. Always be prepared to step out of your comfort zone.

The idea of stepping out of your comfort zone for some people can leave you paralyzed with fear; however for any changing in your life, your comfort zone will always have to be stepped out of.  It doesn’t have to be something big, like doing a sky-dive or something just as crazy. However, it’s worthwhile to change something that you’d once have feared, like going to the cinema on your own or eating at a sushi restaurant when the thought of trying raw fish which would normally mean you running for the hills.

So try something new—it doesn’t have to be wacky, but it has to challenge you!

9. Be on hand to help others.

Whether it’s helping a stranger on the street or a family member or a friend helping someone else either in their time of need, lending a helping hand is a wonderful and simple self-improvement to make.  Giving to others is not only beneficial to those you are helping but also to yourself; it can give you a sense of purpose, of contribution and also takes your mind of your own troubles and worries.

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10. Live in the present moment.

A wonderful self-improvement tool is to live in the present moment, to live in the now.  It is within this moment that you’ll appreciate all that you have and see the beauty in the simplest of things.  Being mindful of your current circumstances and bringing your mind back to where it belongs will bring about a happier way of life instead of constant worry or stressing about the past or future—both of which do not exist. Only the present moment exists. When you get used to living that way, you’ll never want to go back!

11. Learn something new.

There is nothing so liberating as learning something new; it can lift both your confidence and self-esteem and give you a great reason to meet new people.  If you continually top up your brain activity by learning something new all the time, you’ll feel on top of your game and want to share the knowledge you have learned. There is nothing quite so empowering as learning a new tool in life that can either improve your circle of friends or raise confidence levels—or both!

Reading is also a great way to help you learn something new:

12. Exercise daily.

This seems an obvious one, but exercise is so important not only to your health but also to your spirit.  We all know that after exercise, the world can feel a brighter and more positive place, so why don’t we do it more often?  Exercise isn’t about getting the perfect body or losing weight; it’s more about feeling good inside and out!  With a healthy body comes a healthy mind—so start something today. Even if it’s just a daily walk, it’s better than staying on that couch, again.

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13. Go to new places, travel a bit.

I’m not saying go fly off to some far away distant forgotten land—although you can if you so wish. It’s more about going to new places and experiencing life outside of your own back yard.  Too many of us stay in one place too often. We only see the same people, the same streets and do the same things each and every day.  If you want to improve your life, get out there and see the world and what it can offer.  You can start by going to a town or city you’ve never been to in your own country and checking out the architecture, the landscapes and the people.  Anything new is good, so get out there!

14. Listen to uplifting music and dance.

If there’s one thing that can really improve your life and get you excited about it, it’s listening to great uplifting music and dancing.  When was the last time you really let go?  Let it all hang loose and got into a piece of music and let yourself go?  Dancing, like exercise, makes you feel great. It releases all kinds of emotions and can make you feel unbelievably good.  Self-improvement isn’t all about the serious stuff; it can be something as simple as finding new music, music that inspires you and makes you dance and have fun!

15. Get up earlier than normal.

This is the last one, and it’s last because it’s one of those self-improvement tips that we all know is a good thing, yet we seem to avoid it at all costs!  If you think about it, the earliest part of the day is when your brain is most active because it’s been turned off for the last 7 hours or so.  So don’t you think it’s best to get all those things above done in the morning?  Things like exercise, meditation and dancing, which can all be done in the first part of the day.  Take it from me: this early morning stuff can really get your day started with a bang!

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Featured photo credit: Laura Chouette via unsplash.com

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