Advertisement

List of frequently misused English words

From Academic Kids

The meanings of words in the English language often change over time. Sometimes a meaning becomes entirely reversed; for example, nice used to be a negative word meaning "stupid", "wanton", or "lazy", but now means "agreeable", "pleasant" or "attractive". This process is part of the natural evolution of a language, and although it may meet with resistance from prescriptive grammarians, changes that stick are eventually noted in dictionaries.

The list that follows is meant to include only words whose misuse is deprecated by most usage writers, editors, and other arbiters of so-called "correct" English. It is possible that some of the meanings marked Non-standard will pass into Standard English in the future, but at this time all of the below Non-standard phrases are likely to be marked as incorrect by English teachers or changed by editors if used in a work submitted for publication. Several of the examples are homonyms or pairs of similarly spelled words which are often confused, and which prescriptive grammarians believe should have distinct and separate meanings.

In any case, the list that follows should only contain words that are sometimes used in a way that none of the major English dictionaries condone in any definition. See list of English words with disputed usage for words that are used in a way that is deprecated by some usage writers but is condoned by some dictionaries.

There may be regional variations in grammar, spelling and word-use, especially between different English-speaking countries. Such differences are not seen as wrong once they have gained widespread acceptance in a particular country.

  • Accept and except. While they both sound the same (or at least similar), except is a preposition that means "apart from", while accept is a verb that means "agree with", "take in" or "receive". Except is also rarely used as a verb, meaning to leave out.
    • Standard: We accept all major credit cards, except Diners Club.
    • Standard: Men are fools... present company excepted! (Which means "present company excluded")
    • Non-standard: I had trouble making friends with them; I never felt excepted.
    • Non-standard: We all went swimming, accept for Jack.
  • Acute and chronic. Acute means "sharp", as an acute illness is one that rapidly worsens and reaches a crisis. A chronic illness may also be a severe one, but it is long-lasting or lingering.
    • Standard: She was treated with epinephrine during an acute asthma attack.
    • Standard: It is not a terminal illness, but it does cause chronic pain.
    • Non-standard: I have suffered from acute asthma for twenty years.
  • Affect and effect. The verb affect means "to influence something", and the noun effect (noun) means "the result of". Effect can also be a somewhat formal verb that means "to cause [something] to be", while affect as a noun has a technical meaning in psychology: an emotion or subjectively experienced feeling.
    • Standard. This poem affected me so much that I cried.
    • Standard. Temperature has an effect on reaction spontaneity.
    • Standard. The dynamite effected the wall's collapse.
    • Standard. He seemed completely devoid of affect.
    • Non-standard. The rain effected our plans for the day.
    • Non-standard. We tried appeasing the rain gods, but without affect.
  • Barbaric and barbarous. Barbaric applies to the culture of barbarians and can be positive ("barbaric splendor"); barbarous applies to the behavior of barbarians and is negative ("barbarous cruelty"). A barbaric ceremony would be a ceremony celebrated by barbarians and might be beautiful; a barbarous ceremony would a ceremony, not necessarily involving barbarians, celebrated in a cruel or destructive way.
  • Cant and can't. There are several meanings for the word cant (without an apostrophe); however, none of them is "unable to". One meaning of cant is "a kind of slang or jargon spoken by a particular group of people". Can't is a contraction of cannot.
    • Standard: I can't understand the dialogue in this book because it's written in cant.
    • Non-standard: I cant swim; I've never taken lessons.
  • Flounder and Founder. To flounder is to be clumsy, confused, indecisive or to flop around like a fish out of water. A flounder is also a type of flatfish. To founder is to fill with water and sink.
    • Standard: The ship is damaged and may founder.
    • Standard: She was floundering on the balance beam.
    • Non-standard: The ship is damaged and may flounder.
  • Flout and flaunt. One flouts a rule or law by flagrantly ignoring it. One flaunts something by showing it off.
    • Standard: If you've got it, flaunt it.
    • Standard: He continually flouted the speed limit.
    • Non-standard: If you've got it, flout it.
    • Non-standard: He continually flaunted the speed limit.
  • Infamous and Famous. To be famous is to be widely-known. Infamous is to be of exceedingly ill repute (it derives not from fame, but from infamy).
    • Standard: Adolf Hitler was an infamous dictator.
    • Standard: John Wayne was a famous actor.
    • Non-standard: John Wayne was an infamous actor.
  • It's and its. It's is a contraction that replaces it is or it has (see apostrophe). Its is the possessive pronoun corresponding to it, in the same way that his corresponds to he. In standard written English, possessive nouns take an apostrophe, but possessive pronouns do not.
    • Standard: It's time to eat!
    • Standard: My cell phone has poor reception because its antenna is broken.
    • Standard: It's been nice getting to meet you.
    • Non-standard: Its good to be the king.
    • Non-standard: The bicycle tire had lost all it's pressure.
  • Lay (lay, laid, laid, laying) and lie (lie, lay, lain, lying) are often used synonymously. Lay is a transitive verb, meaning that it takes an object. "To lay something" means to place something. Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive and means to recline (and also to tell untruths, but in this case the verb is regular and causes no confusion). The distinction between these related verbs is further blurred by the fact that past tense of lie is lay. A quick test is to see if the word in question could be replaced with recline; if it can, Standard English requires lie.
    • Standard: I lay my husband's work clothes out for him every morning. Yesterday I decided to see if he paid attention to what I was doing, so I laid out one white sock and one black. He didn't notice!
    • Standard: You should not lie down right after eating a large meal. Yesterday I lay on my bed for half an hour after dinner, and suffered indigestion as a result. My wife saw me lying there and made me get up; she told me that if I had waited for a couple of hours I could have lain down in perfect comfort.
    • Non-standard: Is this bed comfortable when you lay on it? (Should be lie)
    • Non-standard: Yesterday I laid down in my office during the lunch hour. (Should be lay)
    • Non-standard: There was no reason for him to have laid down in the middle of the path, it unnerved me to see him laying there saying nothing. (Should be "have lain down" and "him lying there")
  • Loathe: Often used for loth or loath in phrases such as "She was loathe to accept." Loathe is only used as a verb in Standard English.
  • Me, myself and I. In a traditional prescriptive grammar, I is used only as a subject, me is used only as an object, and myself is used only as a reflexive object, that is to say when the subject is I and the object would otherwise be me.
    • Standard: Jim and I took the train.
    • Standard: He lent the books to me and Jim.
    • Non-standard: Me and Jim went into town.
    • Non-standard: It was clear to Jim and I that the shop was shut.
  • Myself is often used in a way that makes usage writers bristle, particularly when someone is trying to be "extra correct". Like the other reflexive pronouns, in prescriptive usage, myself should be used only when both the subject and object of the verb are the speaker, or as an intensifier.
    • Standard (intensifying): I myself have seen instances of that type.
    • Standard (reflexive): I hurt myself. I did it to myself. I played by myself. I want to enjoy myself.
    • Non-standard: As for myself, I prefer the red. (Just use me here)
    • Non-standard: He is an American like myself. (Just use me)
    • Non-standard: He gave the paper to Jim and myself. (Just use me)
    • Non-standard: My wife and myself are not happy with all the development going on in town. (Just use I)
  • Of and have. In spoken English, of and the contracted form of have, 've, sound the same. However, in standard written English, they aren't interchangeable.
    • Standard: Susan would have stopped to eat, but she was running late.
    • Standard: You could've warned me!
    • Non-standard: I should of known that the store would be closed. (Should be "I should've known")
  • Redundant does not mean useless or unable to perform its function. It means that there is an excess of something, or that something is "surplus to requirements" and no longer needed.
    • Standard: A new pill that will instantly cure any illness has made antibiotics redundant. (Antibiotics could still be used to cure illnesses, but they are no longer needed because a better pill has been invented)
    • Standard: The week before Christmas, the company made 75 workers redundant.
    • Non-standard: Over-use of antibiotics risks making them redundant. (This should read: over-use of antibiotics risks making them worthless)
  • Sight and site. A site is a place, a sight is something seen. The internet may be dazzling to some, but it is not a web-sight!
    • Standard: You're a sight for sore eyes.
    • Standard: I literally found lots of sites on the internet---I was looking at a tourist site for Rome.
    • Non-standard: I found lots of sights on the internet.
  • There, their and they're. While they all sound the same, in standard written English they all have separate, definite meanings, and are not interchangeable. There refers to the location of something. Their means "belonging to them". They're is a contraction of "They are".
    • Standard: Since they're all coming to the restaurant for their dinner, we'll meet them there.
  • You're, your, yore and ewer. While they sound the same in many dialects, in standard written English they all have separate meanings. You're is a contraction for "you are", and your is a possessive pronoun meaning "belonging to you". When in doubt, just see whether you can logically expand it to "you are". The third homonym, yore, is an archaism meaning in the distant past, and is almost always used in the phrase "in days of yore". The fourth is the name of a once common piece of household equipment made obsolete by indoor plumbing: the large jug holding washing water.
    • Standard: When driving, always wear your seatbelt.
    • Standard: If you're going out, please be home by ten o'clock.
    • Non-standard: You're mother called this morning.
    • Non-standard: Your the first person to notice my new haircut today!
  • Whomever - because of hypercorrection, some speakers and writers subsitute whomever for whoever when only the latter would be proper. One can determine correct usage by rephrasing what follows the -ever. If he (a subjective pronoun) is the logical replacement for the -ever, then whoever (also a subjective pronoun) is correct. Only if him (an objective pronoun) is the logical replacement will whomever (also an objective pronoun) be correct.
    • Disputed usage: We choose whomever we think is best.
    • Undisputed usage: We choose whoever we think is best. (we think he is best)
    • Disputed usage: We choose whoever the panel recommends.
    • Undisputed usage: We choose whomever the panel recommends. (the panel recommends him)
  • Won't and wont (usually pronounced like want). Won't is a contraction for "will not", while wont is a less frequently used and completely different word: as an adjective it means accustomed or inclined to.
    • Standard: He won't let me drive his car.
    • Standard: He spent the morning reading, as he was wont to do.
    • Non-standard: I wont need to go to the supermarket after all.

See also

External links

Navigation

Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)

Information

  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Toolbox
Personal tools