7 Words/Phrases That Are Misused

by | Jan 30, 2020

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English can be a tough language with many exceptions to its many rules, letters that are silent only sometimes, homophones and contronyms all over the place, and inconsistent pronunciation of similar words. It’s no wonder that we often screw things up when we speak and write. Here are 7 words/phrases that are commonly misused:

1. Irregardless. It’s actually in the dictionary and thus is officially a word, but is considered “non-standard” English. Irregardless is what is known as a portmanteau which means it is a blend of two other words, in this case a blend of regardless and irrespective. According to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, “irregardless” means “emphatically regardless” and is used in some dialects when you want to shut down a conversation. But just because it is officially a word doesn’t mean you should use it. It’s a dumb word due to having a double negative within itself (“ir-” and “less”) and many people think that it’s not really a word. Thus, avoiding its use is a good idea because you’ll seem uneducated. Read more here on this word from Merriam-Webster.

2. Inflammable vs. Flammable. Both of these words mean the same thing: something that is capable of burning. This seems to make no sense as placing an in- at the head of a word usually reverses its meaning — such as using in- to turn “sensitive” into “insensitive” or “active” into “inactive.” The deal here is that the word inflammable came along first and is based on the Latin verb inflammare which means “to catch fire.” Because inflammable starts with the negative prefix in-, it’s a confusing word and thus most people think that something that is inflammable is flame resistant. To combat this misunderstanding the word “flammable” started to be used to warn of combustible materials in the 1920s at the recommendation of fire associations and safety advocates. But both words refer to combustible substances and can be used correctly interchangeably. What to call something that is resistant to catching fire? The opposite of inflammable and flammable is “nonflammable.”

3. Nauseous vs. Nauseated. The first word, nauseous, means something that causes nausea, such as undercooked meat, rotting garbage or a revolting picture. Used in a sentence: “Wow, that was a nauseous fart you ripped!” The second word, nauseated, means feeling sick at our stomach. Used in a sentence: “After that roller coaster ride I’m feeling nauseated.” According to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style: “Do not, therefore, say, ‘I feel nauseous,’ unless you are sure you have that effect on others.” (Note, however, as nauseous has continued to be used incorrectly some dictionaries recognize the use of nauseous to refer to feeling a sense of nausea.)

4. Affect vs. Effect. I struggle with this one. The thing to remember is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. Affect means“to act on; produce an effect or change in” while effect refers to a “result” or “consequence.” A helpful hint is to think of affect as “altering” and effect as a “result.” For example:

  • Correct: Partying negatively affected my grades.
  • Also correct: Partying had a negative effect on my grades.
  • Correct: The cold weather negatively affects my running.
  • Also correct: An effect of the cold weather is that I don’t run as much.

5. Peruse. This word means to read thoroughly or to study with care. It does not mean “to skim!” I wrote an entire IFOD on this which can be found here: Please Peruse This IFOD.

6. Ironic. Isn’t it Ironic? Probably Not. Irony doesn’t mean something is merely coincidental or incongruous. Irony is misused most of the time it is used. For an IFOD on the misuse of the word irony click here.

7. “To make a long story short . . .” This phrase typically signals that someone is in the midst of telling too long of a story. In my experience, it is rare that someone will use such a phrase and then actually be short in their storytelling. If they were going to be brief then they would just do so. I find that the phrase “to make a long story short” is used when the speaker realizes they are losing their audience and want to trick them into paying attention for a little bit longer. Here’s a great clip from South Park on making a long story short:

Two other phrases that typically signal the opposite of what they putatively mean are these two:

  • I’m not a racist but . . . “ This phrase nearly 100% of the time precedes some sort of racist statement. A similar one is “I’m not a sexist but . . . “
  • “No offense but . . .” Starting a statement with this phrase actually means that you are about to say something that will give offense. What you really mean is “I know what I am going to say is offensive to you but I’m going to say it anyway.”
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8 Comments

  1. And then there is the granddaddy of all…. myself. You hear it all the time: “She and myself went…” or “He came along with her and myself.”

    Reply
    • Totally! Myself is used incorrectly all the time!

      Reply
  2. Oops. I meant “device!” Life keeps me humble!

    Reply
  3. “Effect” can be a verb as well. It can mean “to bring about,” “to cause,” or “to achieve”: He effected his escape with knotted bedsheets. You will effect these changes on Monday.

    So the noun / verb memory devise isn’t bulletproof.

    But thank you for theifod!

    Reply
    • Thanks for that info!

      Reply
    • This makes total sense – peruse is now a contranym. I try to avoid the word at all costs.

      Reply
  4. Another word that is overused and misused is incentivize. Although it has worked its way into our language and into the dictionary, the correct word to use is “incent.”

    Reply

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