I'm a writer by trade, so I pay a lot of attention to word usage and grammar. I also know from experience that lots of people are interested in frequently mangled words, so I keep a keen eye out for articles and lists on the subject.

For those reasons (as well as a few years I spent teaching writing), I thought I was pretty well acquainted with most common language errors. A new article from The Guardian has set me straight, however.

While the massive list of 35 often misused words contains some classic slip-ups I've seen highlighted repeatedly ("affect" vs. "effect," "less" vs. "few"), as well as a few entries that seem unlikely to come up in common usage (i.e., the precise nautical difference between flotsam and jetsam), some of the mistakes were both news to me and completely useful. Here are a few examples.

  1. Alternatives. "Wrongly used for 'choices.' If there are two choices, they are properly called 'alternatives.' If there are more than two, they are choices." Bonus language lesson from the Guardian: there is no such thing as alternative facts.
  2. Decimate. This literally means "killing one in 10," but it's OK to use it to indicate a huge loss. However, "to say 'completely decimated' or 'decimated as much as half the town' simply will not do," sniffs the paper.
  3. Dilemma. "Confused with 'problem.' If you have a problem, you do not know what to do. There may be many solutions. If you have a dilemma, you have a choice of two courses of action, neither attractive."
  4. Disinterested/Uninterested. Uninterested means you couldn't care less. Disinterested means you're objective, not biased.
  5. Forego/Forgo. "Forego means 'to go before in time or place' ... To forgo is to give up or relinquish."
  6. Inflammable/Flammable. You might see the prefix "in" and guess that "inflammable" means that something won't catch fire. That seems sensible, but unfortunately it's wrong. "The two words mean the same," says The Guardian.
  7. Prescribe/Proscribe. "Opposite meanings. An action or product that is proscribed by authority is banned. A 'prescription' is advised, recommended."
  8. Skeptic/Denier. Another sadly useful distinction in our current times. "The skeptic questions the evidence; the denier flatly rejects it."
  9. Viable/Feasible. "'Viable' means capable of independent life - a viable fetus or seed or, figuratively, in the sense of 'capable of succeeding,' a candidate. 'Feasible' means 'capable of being done, accomplished' -- a feasible plan."
  10. Virtually. "Incorrectly used to mean 'nearly all'; e.g.: 'Virtually all the chocolates were eaten.' 'Virtually' is useful for an imprecise description that is more or less right, close enough, as good as. 'He's virtually the manager.' He does not have the title, but he manages the business."

Looking for a deep dive into enjoyable language pedantry? Then check out the complete article.