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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 March 14, 2019

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

How it helps you:

If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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How it helps you:

Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

How it helps you:

This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

How it helps you:

One word: hierarchy.

All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

How it helps you:

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Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

6. What do you like about working here?

This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

How it helps you:

You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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How it helps you:

What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

Making Your Interview Work for You

Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

More Resources About Job Interviews

Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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