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The Most Commonly Misused Words and Phrases


Last week, someone shared with me an article from Cracked.com about 9 words that most people use when they want to sound really smart, but actually almost always use them incorrectly. Magnifying Glass over DictionaryMisusing words makes you look less intelligent than you really are. If you misuse words in your writing, it can damage your credibility and diminish the point you’re trying to make. Even worse, it could completely change the meaning of the sentence.

What follows is my list of the most commonly misused words and phrases… Enjoy.

Accept/Except- Although these two words sound alike (they’re homophones), they have two completely different meanings. “Accept” means to willingly receive something (accept a present.) “Except” means to exclude something (I’ll take all of the books except the one with the red cover.)

Irregardless- People think it means: Regardless. Actually means: Not a damned thing.


Affect/Effect- The way you “affect” someone can have an “effect” on them. “Affect” is usually a verb and “Effect” is a noun.

Peruse- People think it means: To skim over or browse something. Actually means: Almost the opposite of that. Peruse means “to read with thoroughness or care.” If you peruse a book, you leave no page unturned.

Alright- If you use “alright,” go to the chalkboard and write “Alright is not a word” 100 times.

Capital/Capitol- “Capitol” generally refers to an official building. “Capital” can mean the city which serves as a seat of government or money or property owned by a company. “Capital” can also mean “punishable by death.”

Ironic- People think it means: Any kind of amusing coincidence. Actually means: An outcome that is the opposite of what you’d expect.

Complement/Compliment- I often must compliment my wife on how her love for cooking perfectly complements my love for grocery shopping.

Comprise/Compose- The article I’m composing comprises many parts.

Could Of- Of the 32 mistakes on this list, this is the one that bothers me most. It’s “could have” not “could of.” When you hear people talking, they’re saying “could’ve.” Got it?

Desert/Dessert- A desert is a hot, dry patch of sand. Dessert, on the other hand, is the sweet, fatty substance you eat at the end of your meal.

Discreet/Discrete- We can break people into two discrete (separate) groups, the discreet (secretive) and indiscreet.

Emigrate/Immigrate- If I leave this country to move to Europe, the leaving is emigrating and the arriving is immigrating.

Nonplussed- People think it means: Unperturbed, not worried. Actually means: Utterly perplexed or confused. It comes from the Latin non plus (a state in which nothing more can be done).

Elicit/Illicit- Some people post illicit things on message boards to elicit outrageous reactions from others.

Farther/Further- Farther is used for physical distance, whereas further means to a greater degree.

Fewer/Less- Use fewer when referring to something that can be counted one-by-one. Use less when it’s something that doesn’t lend itself to a simple numeric amount.

Flair/Flare- A flair is a talent, while a flare is a burst (of anger, fire, etc.)

i.e./e.g.- I.e. stands simply for “that is,” which written out fully in Latin is ‘id est‘. “I.e.” is used in place of “in other words,” or “it/that is.” It specifies or makes more clear. E.g. is used in place of “for example,” and comes from the Latin expression ‘exempli gratia.’

Bemused- People think it means: Mildly amused. Actually means: Bewildered or confused.

Inflammable- Don’t let the prefix confuse you, if something is inflammable it can catch on fire.

It’s/Its- It’s= it is. Its=a possessive pronoun meaning of it or belonging to. Whatever you do, please don’t use its’.

Imply/Infer- A reader infers what an author implies. In other words, when you imply something, you hint at it. When you infer something, you draw a conclusion based on clues.

Literally- If you say “His head literally exploded because he was so mad!” then we should see brains splattered on the ceiling.

Lose/Loose- If your pants are too loose you may lose them. That would be almost as embarrassing as misusing these two words.

Moral/Morale- Morals are something you want to teach your kids. If your team’s morale is low, you need to do something to boost their confidence.

Enormity- People think it means: Enormous. Actually means: Outrageous or heinous on a grand scale. War crimes are enormities. Extra-big bouncy castles are not.

Percent/Percentage- The word “percent” should only be used when a specific number is given. “Percentage” is more of a general term.

Stationary/Stationery- You are stationary when you aren’t moving. Stationery is something you write on.

Then/Than- “Then” is another word for “after.” Incidentally, the word “then” makes for boring writing. “Than” is a comparative word (e.g. I am smarter than you).

There/Their/They’re- There are few things as frustrating as when I look at my students’ writing and they’re misusing these words in their writing.

Unique- Something can’t be “kind of unique” or even “very unique.” It’s either one-of-a-kind or it isn’t. There is no in between when it comes to unique.

Plethora- People think it means: A lot of something. Actually means: Too much of something, an over-abundance.

Your/You’re- If I had a nickel for every time I saw this one… yeah, you know the rest. “Your” shows ownership and you’re is a contraction meaning “you are.” Get it right.

To/Too/Two- Two is a number. “To” is used in instances such as, “I am going to the store.” If you are supposed to use the word “too,” try inserting the word “extra” or “also.” If one of those fits, you need to also add the extra “o” to make “too.”

Lie/Lay- After you lay the books on the table, go lie down on the couch.

Pristine- People think it means: “Spotless” or “as good as new.” Actually means: “Ancient, primeval; in a state virtually unchanged from the original.” It’s therefore perfectly possible to have a pristine mountain of fossilized brontosaurus bones, but if you were to buff that mountain to a lustrous shine, it would no longer be pristine.

Sit/Set- Set your drink on the table and sit in your chair. Got it?

Whose/Who’s- Whose is the possessive form of who. Who’s is a contraction meaning “who is.”

Allude/Elude- When someone alludes to something in conversation (indirectly references), if you aren’t paying attention the meaning may elude you (escape you).

Deceptively- People think it means: Nobody is sure. Actually means: Nobody is sure. Specifically, we’re talking about when the word is used with some other adjective. Like if somebody says, “The pool is deceptively shallow,” does that mean it’s deeper than it appears, or not as deep?

Interesting… Most of us already knew the ins and outs of using the word “ironic” after Alanis Morissette used it in her song over and over again, but a was surprised at a few of them. I myself am not particularly word-savvy when it comes to my vocab, but I always get irked when people misuse some simple and common phrases.

The one that gets me going the most would have to be when people say, “I could care less.” Please, listen to what you’re saying. It’s always said when people mean they don’t care about something at all, which means that if you “could care less” about something, you must care about it somewhat. Try, “I COULDN’T care less about it” next time.

Which misused words drive you crazy? Share them in the replies.

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One Response to “The Most Commonly Misused Words and Phrases”

  1. Marc Fisher says:

    Oh, the irony that ironic is used incorrectly. I am bemused, even nonplussed, by the enormity at which we, as a society, misuse words that are deceptively difficult. Although the English language is by no means pristine, our ever-changing language should not be an excuse to misappropriate it. Plethora.

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