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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.

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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 July 16, 2019

7 Ways to Get Rid of Negative Energy and Become Positive

7 Ways to Get Rid of Negative Energy and Become Positive

Negativity affects ourselves and everyone around us. It limits our potential to become something great and live a fulfilling, purposeful life. Negativity has a tangible effect on our health, too. Research has shown that people who cultivate negative energy experience more stress, more sickness, and less opportunity over the course of their lives than those who choose to live positively.

When we make a decision to become positive, and follow that decision up with action, we will begin to encounter situations and people that are also positive. The negative energy gets edged out by all positive experiences. It’s a snowball effect.

Although negative and positive thoughts will always exist, the key to becoming positive is to limit the amount of negativity that we experience by filling ourselves up with more positivity.

Here are some ways to get rid of negativity and become more positive.

1. Become Grateful for Everything

When life is all about us, it’s easy to believe that we deserve what we have. An attitude of entitlement puts us at the center of the universe and sets up the unrealistic expectation that others should cater to us, our needs, and our wants. This vain state of existence is a surefire way to set yourself up for an unfulfilled life of negativity.

People living in this sort of entitlement are “energy suckers”–they are always searching for what they can get out of a situation. People that don’t appreciate the nuances of their lives live in a constant state of lacking. And it’s really difficult to live a positive life this way.

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When we begin to be grateful and appreciate everything in our lives–from the small struggles that make us better, to the car that gets us from A to B every day–we shift our attitude from one of selfishness, to one of appreciation. This appreciation gets noticed by others, and a positive harmony begins to form in our relationships.

We begin to receive more of that which we are grateful for, because we’ve opened ourselves up to the idea of receiving, instead of taking. This will make your life more fulfilling, and more positive.

2. Laugh More, Especially at Yourself

Life gets busy, our schedules fill up, we get into relationships, and work can feel task oriented and routine-driven at times. Being human can feel more like being a robot. But having this work-driven, serious attitude often results in negative and performance oriented thinking.

Becoming positive means taking life less seriously and letting yourself off the hook. This is the only life that you get to live, why not lighten up your mood?

Laughter helps us become positive by lightening our mood and reminding us not to take life so seriously. Are you sensitive to light sarcasm? Do you have trouble laughing at jokes? Usually, people who are stressed out and overly serious get most offended by sarcasm because their life is all work and no play.

If we can learn to laugh at ourselves and our mistakes, life will become more of an experiment in finding out what makes us happy. And finding happiness means finding positivity.

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3. Help Others

Negativity goes hand in hand with selfishness. People that live only for themselves have no higher purpose in their lives. If the whole point of this world is only to take care of yourself and no one else, the road to a long-term fulfillment and purpose is going to be a long one.

Positivity accompanies purpose. The most basic way to create purpose and positivity in your life is to begin doing things for others. Start small; open the door for the person in front of you at Starbucks or ask someone how their day was before telling them about yours.

Helping others will give you an intangible sense of value that will translate into positivity. And people might just appreciate you in the process.

4. Change Your Thinking

We can either be our best coach or our best enemy. Change starts from within. If you want to become more positive, change the wording of your thoughts. We are the hardest on ourselves, and a stream of negative self talk is corrosive to a positive life.

The next time you have a negative thought, write it down and rephrase it with a positive spin. For example, change a thought like, “I can’t believe I did so horribly on the test–I suck.” to “I didn’t do as well as I hoped to on this test. But I know I’m capable and I’ll do better next time.”

Changing our self-talk is powerful.

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5. Surround Yourself with Positive People

We become most like the people that we surround ourselves with. If our friend group is full of negative energy-suckers and drama queens, we will emulate that behavior and become like them. It is very difficult to become more positive when the people around us don’t support or demonstrate positive behavior.

As you become more positive, you’ll find that your existing friends will either appreciate the new you or they will become resistant to your positive changes. This is a natural response.

Change is scary; but cutting out the negative people in your life is a huge step to becoming more positive. Positive people reflect and bounce their perspectives onto one another. Positivity is a step-by-step process when you do it solo, but a positive group of friends can be an escalator.

6. Get into Action

Negative thoughts can be overwhelming and challenging to navigate. Negativity is usually accompanied by a “freak-out” response, especially when tied to relationships, people and to worrying about the future. This is debilitating to becoming positive and usually snowballs into more worry, more stress and more freak-outs.

Turn the negative stress into positive action. The next time you’re in one of these situations, walk away and take a break. With your eyes closed, take a few deep breaths. Once you’re calm, approach the situation or problem with a pen and pad of paper. Write out four or five actions or solutions to begin solving the problem.

Taking yourself out of the emotionally charged negative by moving into the action-oriented positive will help you solve more problems rationally and live in positivity

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7. Take Full Responsibility, Stop Being the Victim

You are responsible for your thoughts.

People that consistently believe that things happen to them handicap themselves to a victim mentality. This is a subtle and deceptive negative thought pattern. Phrases like “I have to work” or “I can’t believe he did that to me” are indicators of a victim mentality. Blaming circumstances and blaming others only handicaps our decision to change something negative into something positive.

Taking full responsibility for your life, your thoughts and your actions is one of the biggest steps in creating a more positive life. We have unlimited potential within to create our own reality, change our life, and change our thoughts. When we begin to really internalize this, we discover that no one can make us feel or do anything. We choose our emotional and behavioral response to people and circumstances.

Make positive choices in favor of yourself.

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny” ― Lao Tzu

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Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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