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.

25 Memory Exercises That Actually Help You Remember More 12 Simple Ways to Boost Your Confidence Right Now 10 Amazing Health Benefits Of Beer You Probably Never Knew 15 Funny Idioms You May Not Know (And What They Actually Mean) Great Leaders Remember to Offer These 10 Things All The Time

Trending in Communication

1 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way 2 How to Break Free From Negative Thinking for Good 3 15 Simple Things You Can Do to Boost Your Daily Motivation 4 How to Say No When You Know You Say Yes Too Often 5 Feeling Super Stressed? Do This Daily Routine Every Day

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on September 18, 2020

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

1. Take a step back and evaluate

When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
  4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
  5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

Advertising

2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

4. Process your thoughts/emotions

Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

  1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
  2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
  3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
  4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

5. Acknowledge your thoughts

Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

Advertising

Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

6. Give yourself a break

If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

As Helen Keller once said,

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

  1. What’s the situation?
  2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
  3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
  4. Take action on your next steps!

After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

Advertising

12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

Read Next