Commonly Misused Words

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One of the most interesting classes I took in college was on the history of the English language. The influence other languages had on the development of English explains why there are so many seeming inconsistencies and exceptions to the rules. For example, when do you use “more” or “most” to increase the intensity of a word, and when do you use the suffixes “-er” or “-est”? It depends on whether the word came from the Germanic roots of English or the influence of the Romance languages.

Time and use change the words we use, but there are some ways to misuse words that, if done repeatedly, will mark a writer as an amateur.

Homophones and other words that only have slight differences but mean vastly different things can cause stumbling. A usage guide such as Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is as indispensable as a dictionary or a style guide. I once caught the word “insure” used in a contract when it should have been “ensure.” I did not want a legally-binding document implying that I was promising to buy insurance.

This is a handy list of commonly misused words. Keep an eye on these when you use them. Your reader, and your editor, will thank you.

 

accept: to take, receive, or believe something

except: to exclude something

 

adverse: unfavorable

averse: opposed to or disinclined to

 

affect: almost always a verb, meaning to make a difference or change

effect: almost always a noun, meaning result or consequence or an item belonging to someone, except when used as a verb in the expression “to effect change”

 

all intents and purposes, not all intensive purposes

 

all right, generally preferred over alright

 

all together: in a group

altogether: wholly, entirely, completely

 

allude: to hint at

elude: to evade

 

a lot, never “alot”

 

alter: verb meaning to change

altar: noun meaning a place where people get married

 

a while: noun phrase

awhile: adverb, cannot be the object of a preposition like “for” or “in”

 

bated breath, not baited breath

 

canvas: noun meaning fabric

canvass: verb meaning to go door to door

 

cite: to quote someone or to give a citation

sight: vision

site: location, also used when referring to a website

 

coarse: rough

course: a class, a dish, or a direction

 

complement: completes or goes well with

compliment: a flattering comment

 

couldn’t care less, not “could care less,” though this has been misused so much that it has become idiomatic

 

cue: signal or prompt

queue: line

 

discreet: concealed, unnoticeable, or prudent

discrete: separate or distinct

 

eek: an exclamation

eke: barely getting by

 

elicit: verb meaning to evoke or get

illicit: adjective meaning illegal

 

eminent: prominent

immanent: inherent

imminent: ready to take place

 

envelop: verb meaning to enclose

envelope: noun meaning a piece of stationery

 

every day: noun phrase

everyday: adjective

 

fair: lightness, beauty, or justice

fare: fee

 

farther: used for physical distances

further: used for things other than physical distances

 

faze: verb meaning to disturb

phase: noun meaning a stage or point in a process

 

flaunt: to show off

flout: to openly defy or disrespect

 

flounder: to flop around

founder: to sink

 

forbear: to hold back

forebear: an ancestor

 

forego: to come before

forgo: to do without

 

foreword: an introductory section in a book

forward: a direction

 

hoard: verb meaning to collect

horde: noun meaning a large group of people

 

imply: to indirectly suggest

infer: to draw a conclusion

 

lay: to put or place something else down (needs a direct object), other verb tenses are laid and laying

lie: to rest or recline, other verb tenses are lay, lain, and lying

 

medal: token of recognition

metal: category of substances

meddle: to interfere

mettle: fortitude or strength

 

palate: sense of taste or the roof of the mouth

palette: color scheme

pallet: square wooden platform

 

peak: pinnacle

peek: look

pique: to stimulate

 

pour: to make liquid flow

pore: as a verb meaning to study something carefully, as a noun meaning a small opening

 

precede: to go before

proceed: to begin to do

 

principal: the first or leading example, also the head of a school or a sum of money

principle: a concept or moral value

 

regardless, preferred over substandard “irregardless”

 

sleight of hand, not slight of hand

 

stationary: not moving

stationery: paper products

 

till, not ‘til

 

vice: moral weakness, or a secondary position

vise: a tool used to hold an object in place

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