Some languages, like French, have an official body that decides how words can and cannot be used. English, as a flexible, global language, has no such designated referee. Therefore, there is no definitive answer to whether you're using a word "correctly." It's all a matter of taste and context. But there are opinions. And some count more than others.
Steven Pinker is probably as good an expert to ask as anyone. Helpfully, the renowned Harvard linguist and best-selling author recently wrote a book, entitled The Sense of Style, that aims to help readers improve their use of the English language.
If you're in the market for an update to good, old Strunk and White, it's probably a good buy. But if you just want to spot check that you've not been making embarrassing language mistakes for years, a monster list of 58 commonly misused phrases covered in the book that recently appeared in the UK's Independent newspaper is probably a good place to start. Here are some highlights:
- Adverse means "detrimental." It does not mean "averse" or "disinclined." Correct: "There were adverse effects." / "I'm not averse to doing that."
- Appraise means to "ascertain the value of." It does not mean to "apprise" or to "inform." Correct: "I appraised the jewels." / "I apprised him of the situation."
- Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to "raise the question." Correct: "When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting 'German quality,' but that just begs the question."
- Bemused means "bewildered." It does not mean "amused." Correct: "The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused." / "The silly comedy amused me."
- Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: "Shakespeare used a lot of clichés." / "The plot was so clichéd."
- Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: "Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals," Pinker writes. "But I still like it."] Correct: "This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it."
- Depreciate means to "decrease in value." It does not mean to "deprecate" or to "disparage." Correct: "My car has depreciated a lot over the years." / "She deprecated his efforts."
- Disinterested means "unbiased." It does not mean "uninterested." Correct: "The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge." / "Why are you so uninterested in my story?"
- Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean "enormousness." [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: "The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears." / "The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work."
- Hone means to "sharpen." It does not mean to "home in on" or "to converge upon." Correct: "She honed her writing skills." / "We're homing in on a solution."
- Hung means "suspended." It does not mean "suspended from the neck until dead." Correct: "I hung the picture on my wall." / "The prisoner was hanged."
- Ironic means "uncannily incongruent." It does not mean "inconvenient" or "unfortunate." Correct: "It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory." / "It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz."
- Nonplussed means "stunned" or "bewildered." It does not mean "bored" or "unimpressed." Correct: "The market crash left the experts nonplussed." / "His market pitch left the investors unimpressed."
- Parameter refers to a variable. It not mean "boundary condition" or "limit." Correct: "The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates." / "We need to work within budgetary limits."
- Phenomena is a plural count noun--not a mass noun. Correct: "The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope."
- Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are past participles--not words in the past tense. Correct: "I've shrunk my shirt." / "I shrank my shirt."
- Simplistic means "naively or overly simple." It does not mean "simple" or "pleasingly simple." Correct: "His simplistic answer suggested he wasn't familiar with the material." / "She liked the chair's simple look."
- Verbal means "in linguistic form." It does not mean "oral" or "spoken." Correct: "Visual memories last longer than verbal ones."
- Effect means "influence"; to effect means "to put into effect"; to affect means either "to influence" or "to fake." Correct: "They had a big effect on my style." / "The law effected changes at the school." / "They affected my style." / "He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents."
- Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to "recline"; lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to "set down"; lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to "fib." Correct: "He lies on the couch all day." / "He lays a book upon the table." / "He lies about what he does."
It should be noted that while it's always good to polish up your writing, one of the joys of language is that it isn't fixed in time. It evolves. Nor is there a single "correct" style (in English, at least). You'd neither connect nor impress if you chose your words like an Oxford don at a rap battle (though, actually, someone please make that YouTube video), and you'd be unlikely to get a job at an investment bank today speaking like Shakespeare.
Why is this important? It's easy to get too caught up in being perfectly "correct" and become a tedious language snob. Remember you probably want to come across as intelligent and thoughtful not uptight and pedantic. So don't get so worked up over the little things that you miss the larger point of good writing -- to communicate clearly and engagingly with your chosen audience.
How many of these words are you guilty of mangling?