Misused and abused words in the American English language

Many times, we are tempted to use words that make us sound intelligent, without really having a strong understanding of the word’s definition or proper use. In doing so, we end up making ourselves sound less intelligent to the individuals who do know how to use the word properly. In an attempt to help you in your writing, I have included a few here:

  • Lie versus Lay: In the present tense, this one is pretty easy to figure out, as “lie” is something a person does, and “lay” is something an inanimate (or non-person) object does. It gets sticky when one is writing in the past tense, for which “lay” is the “lie” version, and “laid” is the “lay” past tense. Confusing, at best. And none of them sound correct when one is questioning!
  • Fewer versus Less: This one just requires a quick measure; fewer goes with objects (plural), and less is the amount of the whole. (You have fewer coins, but I have less money overall.)
  • Nauseous versus Nauseated: Something that causes nausea is “nauseous,” (spoiled food) while one feels nauseated after being exposed to the nauseous item. (I felt nauseated after having to smell the nauseous burned popcorn all day.)
  • Affect versus Effect: These two are doubly confusing, as they can both be used as a noun or a verb! Affect is a (mostly) psychological term used to describe one’s emotional state (her affect was incongruous with her activity level), where effect is the result of something else (the effect of lowering prices was greater sales). Affect is used to describe what happens when two things are exposed to each other (The rain affected the quality of the soil.), whereas effect is used to describe the outcome of that exposure (The rain effected a mudslide.)
  • Imply versus Infer: These words are almost opposites. Usually a speaker implies something by suggesting something without actually stating it, and the listener infers that something suggested, without actually hearing it stated. (He implied that we would be hiring some new talent, and I inferred that meant I would have to start interviewing soon.)
  • Bring versus Take: Another set of almost opposites. Both refer to the transport of something, but which one is to be used depends upon one’s perspective of the thing. (I asked him to bring it to me, but I offered to take it to the manager.)
  • Farther versus Further: This one is relatively simple, as farther refers to a distance and further means the degree of an action. (I definitely ran farther than her, and had nothing further to say when she objected to my win.)
  • Accept versus Except: While these two words sound very similar they mean very different things. Accept means to receive something, while except means to exclude something. (I accepted all the awards, except for the attendance award, as I had missed a day.)
  • Comprise versus Compose: This pair is another of degrees—parts versus the whole thing. Comprise means to include, while compose means to make up. (The game comprises nine innings. Each team’s position composes each inning).
  • Ironic versus Coincidental: These two are often used interchangeably, but actually mean very different things. When two events happen simultaneously, but separately, they make up a coincidence. (I fell into the puddle as the car drove past and splashed me. I fell, the car splashing me did not cause it.) Irony is some sort of reversal of what was expected. (It was ironic when I ran to the restroom and found it closed. I ran quickly to the restroom expecting to be able to use it, only to find it closed and unusable. It usually portrays a “bad luck” scenario.)

A few other misused words that crop up quite frequently serve to sound like fingernails across a chalkboard to the nerves of the knowing ones.

  • Irregardless: It just is not a word. Regardless says it well enough, it does not need a prefix. In addition, regardless is a negative, and the “ir” makes it a double negative, changing the speaker’s meaning considerably. (I love you regardless of your terrible grammar.)
  • ProNOUNciation: Again, not a word. While one can PRONOUNCE something incorrectly, their proNUNciation is what matters.
  • Supposably: Supposedly, this is thought to be a real word.
  • Expresso: Starbucks employees will roll their eyes if you order your espresso in this manner.
  • Literally: This word is to be used when speaking of something concrete, not in the faddish sense of using it as an exaggeration.
  • Firstly (or secondly, thirdly, …): The ordinal word, first, is already an adverb, and adding the suffix serves only to be redundant.
  • Orientate (disorientate): This one is often used to describe how one comes to be familiar with something, get their bearings; however, the correct usage is “orient” or “disorient.” There is, of course, that awful beginning period of a new job, called “orientation,” that we all must endure.
  • Anyways: To begin with, “anyway” is a compound filler word; to add an “s” is just plain ridiculous.
  • Reiterate: Iterate means to repeat; to REiterate is redundant.
  • Aksed: This one just completely confuses me; are you stating that you killed her when you say that you “aksed (axed) my mother”??
  • UNthaw: There is no need to add the prefix “UN” when describing the frozen meat’s status. To UNthaw something would be to freeze it, undoubtedly not what the speaker means to portray to the listener.
  • Preventative: This one is trickier, because it is becoming more accepted, especially in medical circles. It is an unnecessary syllable added to “preventive,” presumably to appear more distinguished.

I hope you have enjoyed my “Grammar Nazi-like” discussion of the words most commonly used/misused in the American English language. I will NOT further disrupt your nerves by attempting to describe the Pittsburgh/Ohio Valley dialect, around which I have grown up and have come to find more distasteful as the years pass!

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