How confident are you in your own vocabulary? Are you certain that every word you use is used correctly? If so, you're highly unusual. Most people get some words wrong at least some of the time, and some words are wrong more often than they're used correctly.
To make sure this doesn't happen to you, here's a list of 16 common words and phrases to be careful with. They may not mean what you think they do:
Adverse means bad and usually refers to existing conditions. "The new tax laws were having an adverse effect on business," or "We drove to the seaside despite adverse weather conditions." What it doesn't mean is objection-that's averse. As in, "I would not be averse to you joining me for dinner." Two different words that many people mix up.
Comprise means to include or to be made up of. For instance, a large collection comprising 50 portraits and 20 landscapes. What it doesn't mean is composed. So, "our work force is comprised of a diverse group of people of all races and ages," is wrong. Use "compose" or "made up" instead. I frankly can't see any good use for this word since all its meanings have synonyms that are more easily understood. I avoid it.
Diffuse means to dilute or spread out. For instance, if you pour a cup of milk into the ocean, it will diffuse. You can render something harmful less so by diffusing it into a large quantity of something harmless, such as a tablespoon of arsenic diluted in ten gallons of water. That leads some people to wrongly use diffuse to mean "render harmless."
What they really want is defuse, which sounds somewhat similar. That literally means to deactivate or remove the fuse from an explosive device. But it can also be used metaphorically. For instance, if two people are about to get into a heated argument, you might be able to defuse-not diffuse-tensions by taking them out for ice cream.
Effect is often used wrongly instead of affect. To affect something is to change it-to have an effect on it. Effect as a verb means to make something happen, as in "he effected a cure for his son's sore throat by feeding him ice cream." It doesn't mean to change something.
5. Eke out
The verb to eke is used incorrectly more often that it's used correctly. Here's a perfect example of misuse from a recent headline: "Giants eke out a weird, wild win in St. Louis." To eke out is often used to mean "squeeze out" or "just barely manage." What it really means, though, is to supplement or stretch out, usually one's income.
A common usage, and one that's led to a lot of misunderstanding, is something like this, "He eked out a small living by selling magazine subscriptions." What that means is, he wasn't paid very well at his day job, so he picked up extra money selling magazines on the side.
If you've got it, flout it, right? Not so much. To flout is to shamelessly break a rule or restriction, such as running a stop sign when there's a police car right behind you. (I did this once. I don't recommend it.) It doesn't mean to show off or boast. If you've got it, flaunt it.
This is one I get wrong myself. Did you think it means to give something up or go without something? Wrong-that's forgo, with no e. To forego means to go before something.
This word is so commonly misused that some lenient dictionaries define forego as "a variant spelling of forgo." Even so, if you mean forgo, you might as well use the more standard spelling and avoid confusion, not to mention disapprobation.
8. Free reign
This is another phrase that seems to be used incorrectly at least as often as it's used right. The correct phrase is "free rein," as in what happens when you're riding and you drop the reins to let the horse go wherever it wants. Reign is what kings do, and that leads to some confusion because if you write, "he has free rein over our budget," reign, in the sense of being in charge, might seem right. It isn't.
Hopefully is an adverb meaning "in a hopeful manner." Correct: '"It looks like rain today," he said hopefully." (I'm on the West Coast where rain is to be hoped for.) Incorrect: "Hopefully, it will rain today." Raindrops don't have emotions so they're unlikely to feel hopeful as they fall from the sky.
The meaning of this term is the subject of so much debate even language experts disagree about how to use it right. Much of the disagreement centers around the Alanis Morissette song "Ironic"-many mavens say that none of the situations described in the song actually constitute irony.
Though dictionaries differ, defining this word seems to come down to three things. First, a statement made when what is said isn't what is meant. For instance, "Isn't it a nice day to go for a walk?" if it's pouring outside. The second, having to do with plays or movies, is when someone says something but the audience knows better. For instance, when the young newlyweds say, "I'm so glad we're alone at last," because they can't see the crowd of zombies gathering right outside the door. A third meaning, at least according to some dictionaries, is the opposite of what would be expected or appropriate, such as a stop sign with the words "...defacing stop signs," added under the word "Stop."
The word definitely doesn't mean "oddly coincidental," but it's often used that way. So "Ironically, he finally found his long-lost love the day before his wedding to another woman," is all wrong.
Methodology is the actual study of method. So if you have a group of scientists running an experiment, and a second group of scientists is interviewing them about how they're handling that experiment-that's methodology. The procedure by which the first group of scientists is actually doing their experiments is method, not methodology.
This is another one I've often gotten wrong. Myself is only properly used when the subject of a sentence is "I." For instance, "I myself have seen this happen with my own eyes." Don't use myself in any other context. "He brought drinks for my sister, my wife, and myself," is wrong. Use "me" instead.
This is one most people get wrong. If you're feeling sick to your stomach, you're nauseated, not nauseous. If you're nauseous, that means you're making the people around you feel sick to their stomachs.
14. Peak your interest
I don't know how many PR pitches I've received saying they want to peak my interest in something. Although they're hoping to bring my interest to a peak, the correct usage is pique your interest. Pique means to arouse or excite. As a noun, it means being angry or offended, which may be part of the confusion.
15. Period of time
I've said or written this many times myself, but I've recently seen the light. Period (when not referring to punctuation) actually means a certain amount of time. So "period of time" is badly redundant. Go ahead and use period, just don't put "of time" after it.
16. Poured over
If you're carefully examining something, then you're poring over it, not pouring. If you're "pouring over" something, it had better be liquor over ice, or hot fudge sauce over ice cream sauce.
How many of these words have you been using correctly? If it's all of them, give yourself a pat on the back. Either way, feel free to tell me your own most annoying word misuses in the comments.