Are you using some common words wrongly? All sorts of weird uses are making their appearance on the language stage. Here are twenty of the most common ones but maybe soon, they will no longer be a problem, as language evolves. Ask me again, ten years from now.
1. Acute vs. Chronic
These words are normally used to describe pain. An acute pain means one that is sharp and sudden while a chronic one has been affecting you for a very long time. ‘Acute’ has other meanings which usually refer to a penetrating insight or a crucial situation.
Correct: ‘ I felt an acute pain in my shoulder which did not last long, fortunately.’
Incorrect: ‘He has suffered from acute pain in the hip for almost ten years’. ‘Chronic’ should be used here.
2. Affect vs. Effect
We talk about side effects when referring to illness or medication. ‘Effect’ is used as a noun which simply means ‘the result of’. The problem arises when people confuse this with the verb ‘affect’ which means to influence in a negative way.
Correct : ‘One of the effects of the recession was an increase in unemployment.’
Incorrect:- ‘Her serious illness effected him greatly.’ ‘Affected’ should be used here
3. Because vs. Since
Look at this sentence: ‘Since you know Jack, there was no need to introduce you’. ‘Since’ is used when the reason is actually known by everybody. We use ‘because’ when the reason is not clear or obvious. ‘I was late because of the awful traffic’ is fine here. Imagine if we used ‘since’ in this sentence. It would sound very strange!
4. Bring vs. Take
If you are coming to my house for dinner, I can ask you to bring a bottle of wine. When leaving, I can remind you, ‘Don’t forget to take your smartphone’. It all depends on the direction. Usually, ‘bring’ denotes that someone is coming towards you. If you are headed in another direction, ‘take’ is the right one to use.
5. Cache vs. Cachet
You often come across the word ‘cache’ when you are told that there is a problem with your browser and that the cache should be emptied. It just means a memory storage unit for URLs has become rather crowded. ‘Cache’ can also be used for storing weapons and treasure.
‘Cachet’ can mean a mark of excellence or prestige, as in ‘The name Churchill has a certain cachet’. It can also mean an official seal on a document or letter.
6. Deserts vs Deserts vs Desserts
Brown Betty, Funnel cake and Red velvet cake are all American desserts. That is easy (and delicious). Note the double ’s’ in the spelling. But how do you pronounce it? Click here to hear it.
Now, what about the other two? The first one is desert (stress on first syllable) which is the word we use when talking about the Sahara and sandy places. It can be singular or plural.
The other ‘deserts’ (more often plural than not; second syllable is stressed) can mean deserving punishment or the reward for something nasty. It comes from the old French word ‘deservir’ which means ‘deserve’. So, when you are satisfied that someone has been fairly punished for some nasty crime, then you can safely use it. It usually goes well with the word ‘just’ to emphasis that justice has been done.
Correct: ‘Finally the murderous Archdeacon gets his just deserts and is killed by Quasimodo’
Here is one ridiculous example I have invented which illustrates the use of all three in one sentence: – ‘As I sat in my desert tent, enjoying my pecan pie dessert, I could not help feeling delighted that Bernie Madoff had got his just deserts for stealing money from his investors.’
7. Discreet vs Discrete
How discreet are you? If you are an expert in avoiding asking people embarrassing questions or you are careful to keep confidential information to yourself, then you are discreet. Congrats!
‘Discrete’ means something entirely different. It means separate or distinct parts or units. We can correctly write:
‘We examined discrete market segments before deciding on pricing’
8. Elicit vs. Illicit
The word ‘elicit’ comes from the Latin ‘elicere’ or ‘licere’ which means to entice or coax, especially in the context of getting the truth or getting a response. A correct use would be: ‘Our survey did not elicit many responses’ It is typically used in situations where you are seeking a comment, a testimony or information of some kind.
The word ‘illicit’ describes something illegal or which does not conform to common standards.
Incorrect: ‘He carried on an elicit affair with John’s wife.’ The correct word should be ‘illicit’
9. Emigrate vs. Immigrate
Think of ‘emigrate’ as a means of exit. Both words begin with ‘e’ and means that emigrants get out when they want to leave their country of origin. We usually talk about our family in this way. ‘My great grandfather emigrated from Ireland when famine stalked the land’ is correct.
‘Immigrate’ describes the process of entering the country. We talk about ‘immigration policies’ and ‘illegal immigration’.
10. Expresso vs. Espresso
I cannot understand why people incorrectly label espresso coffee as ‘expresso’. Does it mean that it has an extra shot of caffeine or am I missing something? It is a complete mystery to me. I have heard a rumour that some baristas at Starbucks are incorrectly using the term ’expresso’.
11. I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less
Another mystery! People are actually saying ‘I could care less’ which means that they basically care but they want to do it less. What they really mean is that they do not give a damn. The correct way of saying that is ‘I couldn’t care less’.
12. I.e. vs. E.g.
If you want to give an example of something and do not want to give the whole list, just use ‘e.g.’ The original Latin meaning is ‘for example’. A correct sentence would be ‘Some staff (e.g. Mary and Lou) are on a training course.’
If you want to explain something, use ‘ i.e.’ from the Latin id est which basically means you need to give an explanation, reiterate or simply say it in other words. Spot the incorrect sentence here:
1. It happened in July, i.e. three months ago.
2. It happened in July, e.g. three months ago.
Number 2 is incorrect because it is not an example, it is a specific event.
13. Incredible vs. Incredulous
‘Unbelievable’ is the idea you want to get across when you use ‘incredible’. It has a very positive meaning in that it is unbelievably good.
‘Incredulous’ has the meaning of a person being slightly sceptical or unwilling to believe, so it does have a negative connotation.
‘She looked at them with an incredulous stare’ is correct.
This word is often misused. It simply means there is some incongruity in a situation or comment. When I told my sister that a cardiologist friend of mine had died of a heart attack, she remarked that it was rather ironic. This was a correct usage of the word. You could be ironic if you say you feel great when you are clearly suffering from a terrible cough. But annoying events such as bad weather on your holiday are not ‘ironic’. They are just an unhappy coincidence or bad luck.
15. It’s vs. its
Look, it is just an apostrophe (‘), so what on earth is all the fuss? Well, the problem is that people are using ‘it’s, (the contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’) instead of ‘its’ (the possessive pronoun). Spot the incorrect sentence here:
1. It’s been a long time
2. Australia has a booming economy; it’s mining industry has helped enormously
3. The fox did not venture far from its den
Number 2 is incorrect as the possessive pronoun (its) is needed. If you are ever in doubt, just try substituting the ‘it’s’ with ‘it is’, the full form, and you quickly see the problem. If we do that with sentence number 2, we get
‘Australia has a booming economy – it is mining industry has helped enormously’. It does not make sense.
16. For all intents and purposes vs. For all intensive purposes
People have started misusing ‘for all intents and purposes’ which simple means ‘the most usual or practical situations or purposes’. If you use ‘for all intensive purposes’ in describing a job, the person may think that there are emergency or life saving scenarios involved.
17. Lose vs. loose
If you are wearing a loose fitting dress, it just means the opposite of tight. It has nothing to do with ‘lose’ which is a verb for not winning a match, or missing an opportunity.
18. Me-me Vs. Meme
The word ’meme’ rhymes with ‘cream’ so dead easy to say. As we all know, it is just a viral image or piece of funny text which gets spread round the Internet. The only problem is that if you say this word incorrectly and use ‘me-me’, people may think you are being more than a little selfish!
19. Principle vs. Principal
“My guiding principles in life are to be honest, genuine, thoughtful and caring.”- Prince William Prince William is talking about his values, ethics and beliefs. But when we use the word ’principal’ it can have different meanings such as:
- The head of a school.
- The primary or main element.
- A sum of money lent.
- First in order of importance, e.g. ‘The country’s principal cities’.
- The leading performer in opera or concerts.
20. Than vs. Then
These get easily confused because they have almost the same pronunciation, as many of the examples above. When you make comparisons, you have to use ‘than’, e.g. ‘John is a better performer than Robin’
As for ‘then’, this is used to describe various time events. It can mean afterwards, a consequence or at a time in the past.
Look at these examples using ‘then’ correctly:
- Turn right at the traffic lights, then continue along Highway 23
- If you had listened to her, then you would not be in trouble now.
- I was much slimmer back then.
This list is by no means exhaustive and I have only covered the principal meanings and usage. Let us know in the comments which ones you have trouble in remembering and using.
Featured photo credit: Dictionary/Kenneth Movie via flickr.com