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From “literally” to “irregardless”: 20 of the most commonly misused phrases and words


From time to time, we all love to pepper our sentences with a few ‘smart’ words to elevate our intelligence in the eyes of our friends and colleagues.

We scoff inside when we hear people misuse words yet, more often than not, we find ourselves dropping in expressions that have no place in the sentence and have the adverse effect – making us appear rather clueless and, well, stupid; a modern day Mrs Malaprop.

Harvard linguist, Steven Pinker, has written a book entitled The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century in which he lays bare the 58 most commonly misused words and phrases.

Although us Brits like to think of ourselves as language liberals, celebrating the works of literary rebels such as William Shakespeare, who made up entire words to fit in his sentences, there are times when things are just plain wrong.

Pinker has highlighted the most common mistakes people make. Some of them might surprise you.


DICHOTOMY. Does mean: two mutually exclusive alternatives. Does not mean: difference or discrepancy.

There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers. / There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.

DATA. Does mean: plural count noun. Does not mean: a mass noun.

This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.

ENORMITY. Does mean: extreme evil. Does not mean: enormousness. [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.]

The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.

FORTUITOUS. Does mean: coincidental or unplanned. Does not mean: fortunate.

Running into my old friend was fortuitous. / It was fortunate that I had a good amount of savings after losing my job.

HONE . Does mean: to sharpen. Does not mean: to home in on or to converge upon.

She honed her writing skills. / We're homing in on a solution.

HUNG. Does mean: suspended. Does not mean: suspended from the neck until dead.

I hung the picture on my wall. / The prisoner was hanged.

Mrs Malaprop

Mrs Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy play, 'The Rivals', 1775, habitually misused her words.

IRONIC. Does mean: uncannily incongruent. Does not mean: inconvenient or unfortunate. (sorry, Alanis)

It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory. / It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.

LITERALLY. Does mean: in actual fact. Does not mean: figuratively.

I didn't mean for you to literally run over here. / I'd rather die than listen to another one of his lectures — figuratively speaking, of course!

NEW AGE. Does mean: spiritualistic, holistic. Does not mean: mean modern, futuristic.

Ce is a fan of New Age mindfulness techniques. / That TV screen is made from a high-end modern glass.

NONPLUSSED. Does mean: stunned, bewildered. Does not mean: bored, unimpressed.

The market crash left the experts nonplussed. / His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.

VERBAL. Does mean: in linguistic form. Does not mean: oral, spoken.

Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.

AN EFFECT means an influence; TO EFFECT means to put into effect; TO AFFECT means either to influence or to fake.

They had a big effect on my style. / The law effected changes at the school. / They affected my style. / He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.

IRREGARDLESS is not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective.

Regardless of how you feel, it's objectively the wrong decision. / Everyone gets a vote, irrespective of their position.


BEGS THE QUESTION. Does mean: assumes what it should be proving. Does not mean: raises the question.

When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting 'German quality,' but that just begs the question.

DISINTERESTED. Does mean: unbiased. Does not mean: uninterested.

The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge. / Why are you so uninterested in my story?

HOMOGENEOUS is pronounced as homo-genius and "homogenous" is not a word but a corruption of homogenized.

The population was not homogeneous; it was a melting pot.

RETICENT. Does mean: shy, restrained. Does not mean: reluctant.

He was too reticent to ask her out. / When rain threatens, fans are reluctant to buy tickets to the ballgame.

SHRUNK, SPRUNG, STUNK, AND SUNK are used in the past participle — not the past tense.

I've shrunk my shirt. / I shrank my shirt.

SIMPLISTIC. Does mean: naively or overly simple. Does not mean: simple or pleasingly simple.

His simplistic answer suggested he wasn't familiar with the material. / She liked the chair's simple look.

ADVERSE. Does mean: detrimental. Does not mean: averse or disinclined.

There were adverse effects. / I'm not averse to doing that.

You can see more in Business Insider.



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