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List: 58 Most Commonly Misused Words and Phrases

5510506796_dff8c07b64_bWe’ve long know that English is a crazy language, with contradictory pronunciations, spellings, and usage. It’s so crazy that many people like to point out the conflicts, points of confusion, and popular misuses.

That includes Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, who explores what he sees as bad and confusing writing in his latest book, The Sense of Style.

The book is described as "a modern version of Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, but one based on linguistics and updated for the 21st century".  I learned of Pinker over at Business Insider, which earlier this week published a list of 58 words that Pinker says are frequently misused.

I’ve read the list, and in some cases he is correct. I can see how phrases are misused or misunderstood. But there are other words in that list that I would dispute are being used incorrectly so much as the common usage does not meet with Pinker’s approval (data and literally, for example).

There are also several words that are so obscure that I have believing that anyone would know them well enough to get them wrong, much less recognize the misuse. Meretricious, for example, is so obscure that the only way someone could use that would in place of meritorious is by accident and with the help of a spell checker.

Some of the better words from the list include:

  •  Begs the question means assumes what it should be proving and does not mean raises the question.
  • Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.
  • Dichotomy means two mutually exclusive alternatives and does not mean difference or discrepancy.
  • Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness.
  • Literally means in actual fact and does not mean figuratively.
  •  Meretricious means tawdry or offensively insincere and does not mean meritorious.
  •  Politically correct means dogmatically left-liberal and does not mean fashionable, trendy. 
  • Staunch means loyal, sturdy and does not mean to stanch a flow.

As with any authoritarian decree on the proper usage of the English language, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Sure, one should try to avoid misusing words, but there are times where carefully flouting a rule can improve the story.

Rules are made to be broken, or at least that is the politically correct trend in English writing.

image by crdotx


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Scott G. Lewis September 10, 2015 um 4:47 pm

This literally was one of your funnest articles.

Nate Hoffelder September 10, 2015 um 8:42 pm

Thanks, Scott! I couldn’t agree more!

Lynne Connolly September 10, 2015 um 5:48 pm

Discrete/discreet and synchrony/synchronicity drive me nuts. Once you notice these things you can’t un-notice them!

Nate Hoffelder September 10, 2015 um 8:45 pm

@ Lynne

The first pairing doesn’t bother me so much because it could easily be a typo, and I readily forgive most typos. But I’ve never seen either of the sync words, so I couldn’t tell you if I would have even noticed it.

Bill Emery September 11, 2015 um 2:00 pm

Nice review. Being something of a logophile, I looked up 'meretricious' in the OED and found the following definitions:

1. Of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or befitting a harlot; having the character of a harlot.

2. Alluring by false show of beauty or richness; showily attractive. Now often applied to the style of a painter or a writer.

Which is a long way from the definition offered here. Now I have yet another five dollar word to hurl at my congress-critter.

Commonly Misused Words and Phrases via The Digital Reader | Urban Book Editor LLC | Writing, Editing, and Consulting October 13, 2015 um 1:28 pm

[…] via List: 58 Most Commonly Misused Words and Phrases | The Digital Reader […]

Most Commonly Misused Words February 3, 2016 um 5:35 am

I would add misused words like maybe and may be, every and versus everyday, some time and sometime.

Maybe – perhaps or possibly (as in something might happen),
may be – has the ability to happen (as in implies something can happen).

Every day – means each day individually,
everyday – (acts as an adjective) means: frequent or often.

Some time – an extended period of time. Here the word “time” acts as a noun and the word “some” acts as an adjective describing time.
Sometime – at some unspecified point of time. Sometime is an adverb telling when.

If I have some doubts I use dictionaries(like . Hope this helpful information…

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