Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and that’s especially obvious when it comes to written communication. Trying to use words to make you sound smarter can have the exact opposite effect if you’re not using them correctly. For all “intensive purposes,” misusing common words and expressions will make you look stupid, and you could “literally” die from embarrassment when the mistakes are pointed out.
Affect vs. Effect
These two words stump many people because they can both be used as either nouns or verbs. Most commonly, they are used in the context of expressing a change in outcome. In this usage, affect is the verb, meaning to influence something, and effect is the noun expressing the result. To remember this difference, use the sentence “You affect the effect.”
So many people misuse this word that an alternate definition has been added to the dictionary — but that won’t stop you from annoying people when you use this word wrong. Literally actually means “in a strict sense,” as in a “literal translation” being word for word. However, it is commonly used to emphasize a point, as in “I literally died from embarrassment.”
For All Intents and Purposes
This idiom is often misused with people saying, “for all intensive purposes.” This marks the user as someone who is not well-read, and has only misheard the expression used verbally. It means “in every practical sense.”
Accept vs. Except
Accept means to receive, while except means to exclude. These two very different words are often confused, but can be remembered because except and exclude both begin with ex-.
Toe the Line
This common idiom, meaning to conform to a standard, is often misused as “tow the line.” Unless you are manning a tugboat and actually pulling a line, the correct usage is “toe,” derived from the practice of lining your toes up at a line.
This word is not actually a proper word and is often used where the word “regardless” is meant. Regardless means “without regard” or “despite,” while the prefix ir– adds a negative to it, effectively making it “without without regard.”
Adverse vs. Averse
Both adjectives, these words can be easily confused. Averse describes a feeling of being opposed to, while adverse describes something working against something else. In short, averse describes a feeling, while adverse describes and action.
Irony is a reversal of the expected outcome, but many people use it to describe situations that are merely coincidental.
Assure, Ensure, Insure
Though all similar, meaning to make certain, these words are correctly used in different contexts. You assure a person, removing feelings of doubt. Ensure guarantees the outcome of a situation. Insure implies pre-action, protecting against loss (as in an insurance policy).
Then vs. Than
These words are commonly confused but mean very different things. Then is used for time phrases and sequential events, as well as to express a consequence. Than is a comparative word, used to express the difference between two items.
Imply vs. Infer
Imply means you are suggesting something, without stating it outright. Infer draws a conclusion from something not directly stated. In other words, the speaker implies, while the listener infers.
They’re, Their, There (and You’re, Your, Yore)
Homophones (words that sound alike but are spelled differently) confuse many people, and commonly slip through most spell-check and auto-correct programs.
The contractions they’re and you’re mean they are and you are, respectively, while their and your are words of possession. There indicates location, and yore is a time reference.
Weather vs. Whether
Weather describes the atmospheric conditions, such as sun, rain and temperatures. It can also be used in the expression “weather the storm.” Whether is a conditional word, and can usually be used interchangeably with the word if.
Lose and Loose
These two words often get confused in writing, though they mean very different things. Lose is to misplace or no longer have, while loose means not tight.
Couldn’t Care Less
Many people use the phrase “could care less” to mean they don’t care at all, when they actually mean to use the negative “couldn’t care less.”
From the French to see, voilà is an expression used to call attention to an accomplishment. People who have not read the word assume it is English and struggle to spell it, with variations such as wah-la or wala.
Now You’re Good-Looking — and Smart!
While an occasional mistake is easily forgiven, frequent errors will mark you as someone who is not well-read and who probably failed 5th grade grammar. Taking the time to learn the proper usage and proofread your writing (auto-correct is not always right!) will save you — and your readers — from embarrassing errors. Ensure your message is not lost in a sea of misused words. Toe the line, accept the rules of grammar, and voilà — you look smarter!
Did we miss any misused words that annoy you? Make the world a smarter place — please add them to the comments below.
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As a request, I submit “fundamentally” as a word I often hear used incorrectly!
There’s no X in espresso!!!
Great list! My pet peeve is vice a versa – what’s with that?! It’s simply vice versa.