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10 Commonly Misused Words in Writing

by Laura Blackhurst

The English language is one of the most complex in existence. With more words than any other language in the world, it is no wonder even native speakers don’t get it quite right all the time. Here’s a quick run down of my top ten most misused words. Some I am guilty of misusing myself, others are absolutely my pet peeve.

10. Ultimate What we think it means: we often use this to mean “the best” or “greatest” when describing how good something is. Some wrong examples: “That was the ultimate burger” or, “The Top 100 Ultimate Hits of the 80s.”

What it actually means: the last in a list of items. Also, this is the one I am most guilty of using incorrectly in everyday life. To use it correctly in a sentence for example: this entry is not the ultimate in the list, we are only just beginning! This is perhaps one of the most widely misused words in the English language. Some may argue that this therefore means that this use is correct, and is now a commonly accepted part of the English language, that it is not wrong, and the word now does carry this meaning purely through how misused it is. Where do you stand on the debate?

9. Disinterested What we think it means: uninterested, showing no interest in something whatsoever. “I tried to talk to Kate about my problems, but she was completely disinterested.” Wrong.

What it actually means: disinterested means free from bias or impartiality, not influenced by considerations of personal advantage. For example, “A lawyer is obliged to impart disinterested advice.”

8. Less What we think it means: we think we can use this whenever the heck we want when trying to describe when there is not as much of something. “Mary had less apples than Margaret.”

What it actually means: we should actually use “fewer” when items can be counted individually, so we would say, “Mary has fewer apples than Margaret.” When something is more figurative, general or cannot be counted, we use “less” as in, “Bob has less hair than Paul.” Fewer as meaning “not as much” opposed to fewer as “not as many.”

7. Literally What we think it means: this is used as emphasis simply far too often. “I literally died laughing.” I am 100% sure that you literally did not, especially since you have appeared to live to tell the tale.

What it actually means:  literally should be used to describe something that actually happened or is happening. “He literally danced with joy.” If he really is jumping up and down with happiness, then this is ok. However, “She literally exploded she was so angry” is probably pretty unlikely.

6. Chronic What we think it means: we often (myself included) use this to mean “very bad” or “extreme.” For example, “He was suffering from chronic back pain.”

What it actually means: chronic really means “long term.” So someone that is suffering from chronic pain actually means the pain is lasting. An easy word to misuse.

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5. It’s What we think it means: this is a very common and totally unforgivable mistake. “We were in awe by the palace and it’s superior beauty.” We don’t think twice about sticking that controversial friend, the apostrophe, just about anywhere we like.

What it actually means: “it’s” always means “it is.” So, “It’s a beautiful day” is absolutely fine as it is a contraction of “it is”; however, “It’s façade was crumbling away” is most certainly not.

4. Noisome What we think it means: we quite forgivably seem to think this means “noisy,” “boisterous,” or “loud” as in, “The boys became more noisome as the night progressed.” The correct meaning is somewhat different.

What it actually means: noisome, when used correctly, means disagreeable, unpleasant, or offensive to the point of arousing disgust. So be extremely careful when jumping to describe someone as “noisome,” they may not take to it too kindly! A correct example could be, “The food in the fridge had gone off, ensuring a noisome smell filled the rest of the house.”

3. Desert What we think it means: “I just ate the biggest desert I’ve ever had in my life.” Well you’re definitely a contender for Man Vs. Food then. Yup, many of us insist that “desert” is the spelling for the last course in a meal.

What is actually means: yes, “desert” is a hot sandy place, or alternatively can mean to abandon someone or something. “Dessert” is the proper spelling for the food you eat after your main course. “I ate my dessert in under five minutes,” you’ve got it! My rather strange way of remembering is that “dessert” is the longer word with the extra “s” even although a “dessert” is quite substantially smaller than a desert. If you, like me, can easily get your head round bizarre ways of remembering things, you will never spell either of these words incorrectly again.

2. Unique What we think it means: “Unusual” or “rare.” Many of us use this far too often when commenting on how unusual we think something is, like, “Oh, that colour is really quite unique isn’t it?”

What It actually means: the one and only. The single example that there is. One of a kind. So something can simply not be “pretty,” “somewhat,” “rather,” or “quite” unique. This contradicts the meaning of what you are saying. You cannot use these adverbs to convey different degrees of “unique.” So, “Janet’s dress is pretty unique” = wrong, but, “The sparkling light was the unique star in the sky that night” = correct!

1. Ironic What we think it means: ironic does not refer to an amusing coincidence as many seem to be led to believe. So many instances of irony are used incorrectly: “I finally got to go to the shops on my break, and they were closed! Isn’t that ironic?” Not at all. It’s just a bit of an annoying coincidence.

What it actually means: ironic is really about when the opposite outcome occurs to what was expected. One of the best examples is Alanis Morissette’s hit song “Ironic.” Every single example in the song is NOT ironic, cleverly making the song itself completely ironic. It is ironic because this is a song meant to be about irony, but none of the examples used in the song are ironic! For example, “It’s like rain on your wedding day” isn’t so much ironic, as it is frustrating. However, spending half of your life making fire extinguishers, and then dying in a fire because you didn’t have a fire extinguisher, now THAT’s irony. Geddit?

Did that help? Or did you know it all, anyway? I bet you have a few of your own you’re dying to shout at me now. Tell me what you’d add to this list!

Guest post contributed by Laura Blackhurst. Laura is the editor-in-Chief at Scotcampus, lives in Scotland, and regularly travels throughout Europe. Check out more of her articles on her blog.

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