When it comes to language, all of us have our pet peeves. (It's supposedly, not supposably.) But we're also imperfect and prone to mistakes.

Of course, no one wants to use language improperly. That's why I've collected a list of nine words and phrases that are commonly misused. In the past, I've gotten a few of these wrong myself, so I hope you find it helpful. (Note: All definitions are courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries.)

1. Irregardless.

Meaning: The meaning of this word is under debate. Many use it in place of "regardless", meaning "without regard or consideration for" or "nevertheless".

Although most dictionaries include "irregardless" as a word, it is often listed as "nonstandard" or "incorrect". As Wikipedia points out:

"Since the prefix ir- means 'not' (as it does with irrespective), and the suffix -less means 'without', the word contains a double negative. The word irregardless could therefore be expected to have the meaning 'in regard to', instead of being a synonym of regardless."

You might be tempted to tell potential job candidates, "You will be considered for the position, irregardless of how much formal education you've completed."

But don't.

2. Peruse.

Meaning: To read (something), typically in a thorough or careful way. Or, to examine carefully or at length.

Many people use the word to indicate they've read through something quickly, or glanced it over, as in: "I didn't have time to really analyze it, so I just perused it." 


3. Ambiguous and 4. Ambivalent.

Ambiguous: Open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning.

Ambivalent: Having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.

When I was younger, I could never get these two words right. I tried to remember that, generally speaking, people are ambivalent and things are ambiguous.

To be clear, the film Inception had an ambiguous ending. My friend was ambivalent about the movie, though.

5. Pronounciation.

Meaning: This one isn't real either.

Of course, the correct word is pro-nun-ci-a-tion. However, since the root word is pronounce, many mistakenly say the word as it is spelled above.

I know some really smart people who make this mistake. In some cases, it's so ingrained that they continue to say it after someone points it out to them.

6. i.e.

Meaning: That is to say (used to add explanatory information or to state something in different words).

I see this one all the time. People use i.e. interchangeably with e.g., but this is wrong. Both expressions are taken from Latin phrases. E.g. stands for exempli gratia, or "for example." I.e., on the other hand, stands for id est and roughly means "that is" or "in other words."

If that's confusing, think of it this way:

My little boy loves Pixar films (e.g., Cars and Toy Story).

My little boy already has a favorite actor--Owen Wilson (i.e., Lightning McQueen from Cars).

So, how do you remember that? When I first learned the difference, I thought of e.g. as "example given" and i.e. as "in essence." Turned out to be a big help.

7. Contingency.

Meaning: A future event or circumstance that is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty. Also, a provision for an unforeseen event or circumstance.

Notice that contingency doesn't mean "a group of people united by some common feature, forming part of a larger group." In that case, you want to use contingent, as in "a contingent of Japanese businessmen attending a conference."

8. Literally.

Meaning: In a literal manner or sense, exactly.

Many will argue that this is the most misused word in the English language. 

A few years ago, the British newspaper the Guardian published an article that asked writers to name expressions that have become such clichés that they've lost all meaning. Writer and former Time magazine editor James Geary commented on the trend of using literally in a metaphorical sense:

My kids do this all the time: There were 'literally' a million people there, or I 'literally' died I was so scared. When people use literally in this way, they mean it metaphorically, of course. It's a worn-out word, though, because it prevents people from thinking up a fresh metaphor for whatever it is they want to describe.

If you are literally so excited that you're about to pee in your pants, you better find a solution--quick.

9. Irony (ironic).

Meaning: The expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. Also, a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.

Okay, so this one has been under debate for years (this Dictionary.com post on the topic currently has over 1,300 comments), ever since Alanis Morissette claimed that rain on your wedding day is more than just a sad coincidence. But it's not just Alanis; Sarah Belliston (aka the Grammarist) cited typical misuses of the term published by Fox News and the Chicago Tribune.

In the end, experts agree that just because something is funny, it doesn't necessarily mean it's ironic.

Ironic: A traffic cop gets his driver's license suspended due to his own unpaid parking tickets.

Not so much: This is the third time I've seen you this week. How ironic.

So, what do you say? Let's make a pact to stop misusing these words and expressions, once and for all.


Published on: Nov 3, 2015
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