Common words you're probably misusing: From 'enormity' to 'ultimately', 'gambit' to 'fortuitous'

We've put together some of the most commonly misused words, and the ones you should be using instead

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The Independent Culture

As words like "awesomesauce", "bants" and "manspreading" make their way into the online Oxford Dictionary, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on how marvellous the English language is.

In May this year, an expert said English is evolving at a faster rate than it has at any other time in history - largely thanks to social media and instant messaging - and the way we communicate is also changing.

Researchers at Instagram found that emoji are rapidly replacing acronyms to form a more picture-based language on phones, Facebook and Twitter.

But as we advance with this technological phenomenon, it's worth brushing up on your knowledge of words that have existed for a lot longer, and checking you're using them properly.

With that in mind, here are some of the most commonly misused words, along with the ones that should be used in their place:

Anticipate vs Expect

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A dog expecting some food

Strictly speaking anticipate means to foresee something happening and to make adequate preparations for it. In that sense, it’s not the same as words like estimate, expect, presume, or predict. So a retailer "expecting business to pick up" is different from a retailer "that business will pick up", which implies, for example, that they've bought in more stock or hired more staff.

Dilemma vs Problem

The di – of dilemma is the same as in diphthong and diarchy, and literally means "two". So a dilemma is not just any old problem - it's a difficult choice between two equally disagreeable options.

Plethora vs Abundance

A plethora is an overabundance of something, not just an abundance. It comes from the Greek word for "full", and so should really only be used to refer to a quantity greater than what is necessary or that can be dealt with.

Refute vs Reject

Strictly speaking, to refute something means to invalidate it or to prove it wrong by providing evidence against it. It doesn't simply mean to deny or reject something, but this use is so widespread that it’s almost become standard.

Stalemate vs Deadlock

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A stalemate ends a game of chess, so if you’re going to use the word metaphorically, then it should really only apply to situations that bring something to a close (hence "it ended in a stalemate"). It’s not the same as an impasse, a bottleneck, or a deadlock, which are temporary interruptions or pauses that can be resolved.

Travesty vs Terrible

Probably through confusion with tragedy, travesty is often misused to refer to something that is just plain bad, but strictly speaking that’s not the case. The "vest" of travesty is the clue here: originally, it meant to be dressed or disguised in such a way as to be an object of ridicule, or to caricature someone, so a true travesty is really a grotesque or ludicrous distortion of something. Hence a "travesty of justice" is an absurd, topsy-turvy version of real justice, not just a bad outcome.

Invariably vs Often

Invariably describes something that always happens, not just something that happens quite often; so saying that someone is "invariably good at their job", means that they’re good at their job every single moment of their working day.

Perceive vs Regard

Perceive really only means to detect or become aware of something - as in “perceiving a change in someone's behaviour". But it's often used more generally as a formal synonym for words like "regard", "see", or "spot"—as in "I perceive Dickens to be a better author than Hardy".

Factoid vs Trivia

Norman Mailer coined the word factoid to refer specifically to a misconception, namely a fact that is often repeated and widely held to be true, but which is in fact incorrect. The more recent use of factoid to mean a throwaway piece of trivia has all but replaced this original meaning - but could itself be said to be a factoid.

Collude vs Collaborate

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Collude should really only ever be used with an overall negative connotation - it means to plot or conspire, not merely to collaborate.

Ultimately vs Consequently

Ultimately and consequently are not synonyms. The clue here is to remember that ultimate works alongside penultimate and antepenultimate to describe the last in a sequence. So if something ultimately happens, then it happens at long last or in the fullness of time, while if it consequently happens, then it happens as the result of something else.

Gambit vs Gamble

Another chess term that often gets misused: a gambit is not just a gamble. Strictly speaking, its something done with the aim of gaining an advantage, especially at the outset of a discussion or disagreement. It originally referred to a chess move in which a player deliberately sacrifices a piece for the great good of winning the game.

Peruse vs Glance

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A woman perusing the high quality prose of EL James

Contrary to popular use, you don’t idly peruse the magazines when you’re in a doctor’s waiting room. Peruse really means to read something in detail, and is synonymous with words like study and pore; it doesn't mean skim or glance over.

Disinterested vs Uninterested

If you’re disinterested, then you have no stake or involvement in something, and can thereby remain totally impartial. If you’re just not that interested in something, then you’re uninterested.

Enormity vs Enormous

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An enormous elephant

Due to confusion with enormous, the word enormity is widely used as a synonym for sizableness or immensity, but many people consider this use incorrect. Strictly speaking, enormity refers to the dreadfulness or atrociousness of something bad, and as such should only be used in a negative context - so you can discuss "the enormity of a person’s crime", but not "the enormity of the crowd at a music festival" (unless it’s a pretty unpleasant crowd).

Effectively vs Basically

Effectively means "to good effect", not just "in effect"; as a rule of thumb, it shouldn't be used as a synonym for basically. So saying that "Jaws 2 effectively repeated the first film" really means that it did so successfully, in an effective way, and thereby implies that it’s a good film. (It isn't.)

Venerable vs Old

Does not just describe old or ancient, but rather worthy of respect, esteemed. 

Fortuitous vs Fortunate

Fortuitous and fortunate are not traditionally synonyms—one means "happening by chance", the other "by luck". So bumping into someone fortuitously could be either a good or a bad thing, but bumping into them fortunately is always a good thing. Nowadays, however, the two are used fairly interchangeably.

Nonplussed vs Unperturbed

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Nonplussed means "bewildered", or "so stunned that you’re unsure how to act". Because it happens to begin with non–, it’s often misused as a synonym for "unperturbed" or "unimpressed", which is really the opposite of its true meaning.

Humanitarian vs Human

The original and literal sense of humanitarian is “concerned with human welfare” (as in a “humanitarian organisation”). In that sense, it is not a good replacement for “human”—which is how it appears in the phrase “humanitarian crisis” (which would literally be a crisis effecting those concerned with human welfare). Nevertheless, this usage is now so widespread that its largely considered standard.

Word Drops - a compendium of 1,000 facts about words, language and etymology by Paul Anthony Jones - is out now

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