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The Most Commonly Misused Words in the English Language

Maybe English class was the bane of your existence in high school. However, we’ll try to make your grammar lesson a little less of a bitter pill to swallow. In the professional world, you will make a donkey of yourself if you start dropping any of these bombs, whether it be during a meeting, training session, or promotional event.

Many words are often butchered in every day speech and especially writing. It’s unfair for high-quality pens to have to suffer due to poor language. That being said, put on your thinking caps and start refining your skills now.

You’ll be a better writer and speaker before you know it by being aware of these top 10 misused words in English.

Ironic vs. Coincidental

Unfortunately, Alanis Morissette didn’t know what she was talking about when she sang, “it’s like rain on your wedding day, a free ride when you’ve already paid.” It’s probably safe to say that “isn’t it coincidental?” didn’t have had the same ring to it. At any rate, don’t be like Alanis and make sure you keep these words straight.

Ironic vs. Coincidental

 

Utilize vs. Use

People often use “utilize” synonymously with “use.” However, there’s an important distinction between the two words. Utilize is when you’re using something in a way other than its intended purpose. Be sure to use these words correctly or people will utilize a straw as a makeshift blow dart to attack you with paper wads.

Utilize vs. Use

 

Comprise vs. Compose

There’s a reason Mozart and Beethoven were called composers and not comprisers. Each of their compositions consisted of many different notes and melodies. It might seem like a lot to wrap your head around, but remember “compose” is typically reserved for works of art whereas “comprise” is a more all-encompassing term.

Comprise vs. Compose

 

Accept vs. Except

While there are exceptions to every rule, you won’t really find that here. If you accept that, you’re destined to find success using these words correctly. You can easily get away with thinking the wrong version of either word here during speeches as they sound the same. However, it becomes more important when you’re writing, especially if it’s an important speech for a public figure.

Accept vs. Except

 

Ensure vs. Insure

The one other curveball for these oft confused homophones would be the word “assure.” Though it sounds different, you’ll sometimes hear people say, “I can ensure you, I didn’t burn the turkey.” If they are not assuring us, it’s probably safe to say they are the culprit responsible for ruining Thanksgiving dinner. This little mention aside, the words “ensure” and “insure” mean something completely different.

Ensure vs. Insure

 

Adverse vs. Averse

It is pretty unfair to have two words that are so close in meaning and are only one letter off. Perhaps the easiest way to remember the distinction between the two is that “adverse” is typically used to describe inanimate objects. “Averse,” on the other hand, is more commonly used for people. Still, nine times out of ten you’ll get away with using either word.

Adverse vs. Averse

 

Travesty vs. Tragedy

Both words are pretty dark and ominous in context. Almost as if they could be used in a Stephen King novel at any given time. The important thing to remember is that “travesty” is a subpar copy of something much greater. It’s a harsh way to say nothing compares to the original. In most cases, “tragedy” is reserved for catastrophic and horrible moments or events.

Travesty vs. Tragedy

 

Proceed vs. Precede

Maybe this little trick will help you remember the difference between these two words: “You’re a pro at continuing work after you’ve fallen asleep.” Associate this phrase with the “pro” in “proceed” to remember that this word means to continue or go forward, especially after a brief pause. “Precede” refers to a certain order and means to come before everything else.

Proceed vs. Precede

 

Bemused vs. Amused

The whole world will be extremely amused if you use “bemused” in the wrong way. The last thing you want to do is say this word in complete seriousness during a conversation only to use it wrong and land flat on your face. Save yourself the trouble by making sure you know the difference between “amused” and “bemused.”

Bemused vs. Amused

 

Elicit vs. Illicit

Of course, it isn’t illegal to use words wrong when you’re talking or writing. However, if we could make it an illicit activity (especially for those pompous types who never think they’re wrong) we would gladly do so. These words are completely different parts of speech, even though they sound exactly the same.

Elicit vs. Illicit

 

 

You’re a smart business professional who has worked hard every step of the way. The last thing you want is for one grammar slipup or wrong use of a word to downplay your intelligence. It can happen to the best of us, even with all those years of English classes under our belts. After you finish that presentation or write a comprehensive email to the head honcho, make sure you pay attention to the details. At the very least, the Grammar Police won’t have to come and arrest you!



Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa loves food. A LOT. Particularly pizza and popcorn, but she knows beggars can’t be choosers. When she’s not stuffing her face (which is rare), she loves watching movies, playing volleyball and softball, and engaging in any number of interesting shenanigans. If she had to pick a spirit animal, she’d be an otter because they are playful and love to laugh. Most of the time she’s laughing at herself, whether other people are laughing with or at her is to be determined.

Comments

  1. College Dropout Grammar Police

    Wow…

    Why do I have the feeling that someone got a horribly written email today and took her frustration out on the blog?

  2. Jill Tooley

    Amen! That dumb song annoyed me when it first hit the airwaves. It’s extra frustrating, too, because people assume that everything in the song is ironic and then abuse their “knowledge” of that word by falsely claiming that non-ironic things are ironic. This is kind of unrelated, but I’ve also seen people spell ludicrous like the rapper’s name (Ludacris) instead of using the correct spelling, because they think it’s correct. Ugh…

    Thanks for the chuckle and the refresher course!

    –Your fellow word geek

    • Amanda

      Alanis’ Jagged Little Pill was another one of my first cds. I will forever love that entire album–including the song Ironic, even if it used incorrectly. Oh well. I’d be interested to know if Alanis realizes the lyrics to that song are not ironic, or if what Darren said below is true, and it’s the fact that the song isn’t ironic, that makes it ironic. Interesting concept. 😉

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I had no idea I was using (not utilizing) rifling wrong. Yikes! :/

    Thank you again for all of these grammar/word usage posts. It’s nice to have a reminder!

  4. LK

    Although incorrect grammar usage bothers me, I tend to make up my own words all the time and don’t really care if they are grammatically correct or not. To/Too/Two, and others like it bother me, but I think when I make up words it doesn’t bother me as much because they are obviously made up and incorrect.

    Anyway, I’d like to apologize in advance, if you ever hear me adding -ly, -ness, -age, -ish, and many other endings to words that they should not be added to, please let it slide. :/

    • Amanda

      I’m with ya LK. While I don’t usually make up my own words, I am known for swapping out words that I can’t spell or use correctly in a sentence. I’d have no problem just saying “I’m really confused”–rather than figuring out the work “nonplussed”. Just sayin’.

      The wrong usage of to/two/too and there/their/they’re still bothers me too. But I’ve realized that in today’s fast past environment, sometimes we all get typing so fast we don’t even notice we chose the wrong word or spelled something wrong. Unfortunately, that just seems to be how the world is going….

      • Amanda

        **word, not work. Sorry! See–told ya it happens. =)

        • Amanda

          Wow—ok, I did it again. **paced, not past.

          Isn’t it ironic?? hahaha =)

  5. College Dropout Grammar Police

    Also, “nonplussed” should be struck from every dictionary in the world. If we now know how to NOT use words like “literally” and “rifle” (as a verb), I think it’s ironic that we aren’t given examples of how to properly use them.

    😉

    • Dalton

      I’ve never even heart that word. However, to me, it just sounds like something straight from Newspeak in 1984…

  6. Darren

    I think you’re missing the point of Alanis’s song.

    It’s ironic as you are expecting a song about irony but the lyrics are clearly not ironic. At least that’s how I read it – the events in the song are not intended to be ironic, but the entire song is an irony of the term itself.

    Make sense?

    Although you make a valid point in the definition of the word being skewed due to the popularity of the song itself (and the inherent lack of ability in the general masses to grasp the concept).

    • Amanda

      Interesting way to look at it, Darren. I never thought of it that way.

    • John

      Yes, the fact that a song named “Ironic” that is filled with a bunch of things that are not actually ironic, *is* ironic in and of itself. But I part company with you when you suggest that this is intentional. I think it’s pretty clearly unintentional. Still ironic, but don’t give Morissette credit for that.

  7. College Dropout Grammar Police

    -10 cool points for defending a Canadian.

  8. mary

    I’m so happy to see you have found an outlet for your rantings!

  9. Joseph Giorgi

    Excellent and hilarious points! I completely forgot that “rifle” could be used as a verb. Now I’m half-tempted to find a way to use it. Don’t worry though—I’ll be sure to use it properly. I promise. 🙂

  10. surferdude

    It’s ironic that your attempt at eschewing obfuscation has erupted into a plethora of claptrap. I’ve waited for years to use that phrase. 😀

  11. Laura

    I thought the whole point of the song IRONIC was that none of it was irony… making the song itself… Ironic!

  12. Adam

    It’s ironic that someone who writes an article blasting people for the incorrect use of words would have a mistake in her first sentence. It should read “like I” or “like I am.” Nonetheless, good article.

  13. Hockey Player

    Add infer to your list.

  14. Murnahan

    I hate to be picky, too, surferdude, but your proposed solution ends with a preposition. Perhaps people are as smart as you. 😉

    • fred

      He didn’t end with a preposition! The ending of the sentence was “nonplussed and the last time i checked it is in fact an adjective

  15. GnoMAD

    Loved this post so much! It LITERALLY blew my mind. HAHAHA Kidding. I did forward it to a few repeatedly offending co-workers who like to think of themselves as particularly loquacious. However surely you would rather us mail you a large cheque?

    *edit* My apologies, check is acceptable in American-English, and I am in Ozzyland. Specifically; “In American English, check is the standard spelling of the noun referring to a written order for a bank to pay a specified amount from deposited funds. Outside the U.S., the word is spelled cheque. But cheque is confined to this very narrow banking-related sense. All varieties of English use check for the many non-banking-related senses of the word—including (1) a restraint, (2) a pattern of small squares, (3) to halt, and (3) to inspect for accuracy or correctness.”

  16. Tobias

    I love the way you say, “You’re using it wrong” rather than “wrongly”. Or were you being ironic?

  17. Dalton

    As a high school student isolated in a generation which seems to ignore English grammar altogether, I can relate to this post. Between hearing “well” interchangeably with “good,” the word “ironic” as if it were synonymous to “coincidental,” the abuse of words such as “like” and “literally” (the latter having been mentioned in your post), the ignorance of “your” versus “you’re,” and mutatis mutandis with the word “their,” I just have to be quiet and resist the urge to correct people, lest they feel I’m unleashing a grammatical contumely upon them. Don’t even get me started on how people talk on the internet. I absolutely detest the ignorance of pronoun/antecedent agreement. For instance: “[Referring to a single person] What are they doing?” It’s supposed to refer to one person, therefore it’s “he” by default. (Unless you know the gender of the person or thing to which you’re referring, of course.) In addition, I hate the ignorance of adverbs, the ignorance of parts of speech in general, which is just horrifying; and, speak of the devil, the complete lack of knowledge on the semicolon. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.
    On a different note, did you know that “defenestrate” comes directly from the Latin words “de,” in this case meaning “away from the window” or “down from the window,” and “finestra,” meaning “window”? Being a student of Latin, it’s very fun to see the connections between Latin and English.
    Anyways, it was nice reading your post! It’s always great to hear a sane voice every once and a while.

  18. darcy

    Language nerd like I, not me…

  19. David Bernazani

    One of my peeves is when companies misuse the word “quality”. As in, “We offer only quality products and service”. It’s done so much nowadays that it doesn’t even sound wrong any more.
    But what if they also said, “Come in in and buy some for quantity money”? I bet people would notice that.

    • Sinvanor

      @David

      Actually, ‘quality’ is used correctly.
      Definition: “The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something”

      It means the same as saying “We offer excellent or above average products and service.”

      Also, saying “Come on in and buy for some quantity money” is repetitive. Buying anything implies that it would cost some quantity to begin with as it simply means amount but a unspecified one.

      Now if quality only meant a term to say an arbitrary characteristic implied, then I could see why it doesn’t make sense. It would be the equivalent of saying “Come buy our products which have specific attributes to them!”

      I rarely see quality used that way unless you specify “Good qualities” to say someones personality. But quality implies better then standard. So “good qualities” doesn’t make that much sense and becomes redundant.

      Kinda confusing really that quality either automatically implies better then average on default or simply means specific attributes that could be below average, average or above average.

      One example I just thought of is the phrase “quantity over quality” not making sense either, because quantity is unspecified and yet, we use that term to mean that the specifically larger volume is more important then the quality it could offer.

  20. Cringe

    What you claim to be the incorrect use of the word “legitimately” can be an example of hyperbole, not necessarily incorrect grammar.

  21. Hollis Cook

    My favorite of yours was “literally” because you made me laugh. Nonplussed has always been my downfall, for exactly the reason you described. Typically I just choose a different word. As to that little habit, commonly utilized, rarely admitted… there should be a word to describe choosing a completely different word when one can’t either spell, or more commonly figure out, the proper usage of the desired word. My absolute number one pet peeve is irregardless”. (I been known to fire off a tweet to newscasters when they use this “word” that isn’t a word.) Ivy league educated persons that end up in the public arena, such as newscasters and politicians who cannot use proper grammar drives me crazy…”me” and “I” seem to be particularly tricky for them, when it should be absolute second nature. Then… IRONIC…grrrr. Alanis put me over the edge with that one. A great teacher I had, told us to remember irony with this “a police station being robbed, or a firehouse catching on fire”, THAT’S irony. Miriam-Webster’s assistance with dumbing down grammar:
    Iro·ny\??-r?-n? also ??(-?)r-n?\
    noun
    : the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny
    : a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected
    That is NOT irony. However, at IS ironic that a dictionary doesn’t provide the proper definition off irony.
    Loved your post, thank you!

  22. kalesh P V

    ” If no one hates you, you are doing something wrong”
    It’s a quote from House MD and is there a use of irony in this quote?

  23. Deyana

    Wanna hear something IRONIC? I took the baby kitten to BARC so she can get the loving that she deserves and I get my phone stolen AT THE PLACE! What kind of crap it that? Like im already in a sad mood because im not a big fan of any shelters and then that happens…..

    Did I use Ironic correctly?

  24. Bert

    Alanis Morissette’s genius is just above our level: A song about irony that contains no irony? Wait for it… Wait for it… Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

  25. alanis morissette

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  26. spacegy4

    I suggest you look up the definition of utilize. It states “practical” uses, and clearly states that it is a synonym for the term use. Though edgy blog posts to insist that people whom are correct are incorrect certainly draws more attention.

  27. Jdog

    You may get those pants of yours in a twist about how these words are commonly used incorrectly, but consider that language evolves and can change based on its use, so if the words listed here are commonly used with a meaning different to that in your precious dictionary, it may be that it needs updating to encompass the new populist meaning.

  28. Ryan Fawcett

    Passed*

  29. Anders

    the title of Precede is spelled wrong, so says ”procede”

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