Misused Phrases

Below is a list of words and expressions writers tend to misuse. For more comprehensive lists and examples, see the “Resources” page.

 

ability, capability – the first refers to a physical or mental skill, the second to power or ability in general, or to the quality of using something in a certain way.

about, approximately – about refers to a general estimation, approximately is used when referring to calculation or numbers. The word average should not be used with either (as in: an average of about five people)

accept, except – the first means consent, receive, agree to undertake, or come to recognize; the second to specify something or someone as not included in a group or a setting.

accident, mishap – the first can be good, bad, or neither; the second is always bad, yet not as severe as a catastrophe or disaster.

accord, accordance – the first means agreement (between people, things), the second conformity (with demands, standards, etc.).

accuse, charge – in some instances, accused of implies a general allegation, whereascharged with indicates formal proceedings in court. A person may be accused of theft, but not charged with it. In modern usage, however, the two are often interchangeable. The proper construction of accused of is: accused + noun + of + noun. Using a gerund (stealingkilling) instead of a noun (theftmanslaughter) at the end is acceptable, though somewhat inferior in style.

act, action – generally interchangeable, though careful writers will distinguish between the two, act referring to specific doings while actions to habitual behavior or one’s deeds in general.

adapt, adopt – the first means to adjust or make suitable; the second to accept, receive as one’s own.

adequate, sufficient, enough – the first refers to the suitability of something in certain circumstances; the second to amount of material; enough can modify both count and mass nouns.

adversary, antagonist, enemy, foe, opponent – All mean opposition. The first three imply hostility, its degree increasing from the first to the third. Depending on the context, antagonist is not necessarily hostile, and is almost interchangeable with opponent.

affective, effective – the first means of or related to emotions; the second, producing an action or behavior of some sort, influential.

afterward, afterword – the first means later, the second an epilogue (in a book).

aggravate, irritate – the first means to become worse, or add to an already troublesome condition; the second means to annoy.

allege, accuse, suspect – to allege is to suggest that someone has done something wrong or even illegal, usually without conclusive proof. It is different from an accusation, which means to charge someone with a crime or an offense. Suspect means to have an idea or impression of the existing of something, or to believe or feel someone is guilty of something. In its second meaning, suspect is different from allege: the first implies an internal process or thought, the second the sounding of beliefs or feelings. Both suspect  and allege indicate lack of proof.

all ready, already – the first has 2 meanings: completely prepared or that everyone is ready; the second refers to something that has happened before.

all together, altogether – the first means collectively, the second entirely, complete.

allude, refer – allude creates a reference to something or someone by an indirect remark or a hint. Refer does the same thing, but explicitly.

allusion, illusion – the first means an indirect reference; the second, an unreal image or false impression.

alternate, alternative – as a verb, alternate means to occur in turn repeatedly; as a noun it means every other or every second. Alternative means another possibility, or things that are mutually exclusive.

ambiguous, equivocal – both mean open to more than one interpretation. The first refers to a statement that may or may not be intentionally confusing, whereas the second describes a statement intentionally worded to carry more than one meaning. Ambiguous refers only to statements. Words and actions can be equivocal but not ambiguous.

ambivalent, ambiguous – the first refers to two conflicting feelings or wishes; the second to a number of feelings, possibilities, or interpretations.

amiable, amicable – both mean friendly, the first referring to people, the second to relationships.

among, amid – both mean in the company of; among is used with countable things (and people); amid for uncountable or abstract things.

among, between – the first refer to more than two people or things; the second either to two people or things, or to more than two, when a clear reference is made to each of the parties.

amount, quantity – the two are nearly interchangeable; amount refers to the total of a thing in number, size, or value, whereas quantity can also refer to immaterial things or those that cannot be counted.

amusedly, amusingly – one listens amusedly but tells a story amusingly.

anticipate, expect – to anticipate, in its traditional meaning, referred to being aware of and dealing with beforehand. It is now commonly used as an equivalent to expect, meaning regard something as likely to happen.

apparently, seemingly, obviously – the first two mean as far as one knows or can see, and imply doubt; obviously expresses certainty or clarity.

appear, seem – practically interchangeable, appear refers to an effect on the senses, whereas seem to an effect on the mind, and suggests a sense of reflection.

appreciate – avoid the construction I would appreciate it if you would/could let me know, and instead write: I would appreciate your letting me know, or even a simple please let me know. Other, less problematic meanings of appreciate are to understand fully and to increase in value.

apt, likely – apt can be synonymous to likely, but it can also suggest habitual tendency, a meaning likely does not convey.

aroma, odor, scent – an aroma is pleasant; an odor may or may not be; a scent is subtler, and usually refers to a distinctive, particular aroma or odor.

as far as – has the meaning of as for, and must be followed by is concerned/goes. As for should always be preferred.

assumption, presumption – the first is hypothesized but not drawn from evidence; the second implies some evidential basis.

astonish, surprise – the first bears the meaning of being momentarily overwhelmed by something; the second implies a greater sense of unexpectedness. The distinction between the two is not as clear as it used to be.

avert, avoid – avert means to prevent, avoid to stay away from.

avocation, vocation – the first is a hobby, the second a profession.

base on – can be used as a transitive verb (as in: we base our position on medical evidence) or in a passive structure (as in: their story was based on unsubstantiated rumors). The common usage as a preposition, however, is incorrect (as in: based on his testimony, we decided to go ahead).

begin, commence, start – the first two essentially mean the same thing, with commence being a bit more formal. Start denotes a more specific point in time than begin: one starts a race, a fight, a walk, but begins the school year, a trip, a friendship.

below, under – both mean at a lower level or layer than, but below is in contrast with above, and refers to difference of level; under is the opposite of over, and refers to something that is in a level between the two (i.e. between the under and over).

beside, besides – most writers won’t distinguish between the two but careful ones will note that beside means at the side of, and besides in addition to or furthermore.

bias, prejudice – bias indicates an inclination for or against something; prejudice is usually against.

bimonthly, semimonthly – the first means every two months; the second twice a month.

both – when used with and, the both and and parts of the sentence should be symmetrical in proper English: both in X and in Y rather than both in X and Y.

bring, take – action toward the speaker requires bring; action away from the speaker requires take.

but – it is perfectly fine to begin a sentence with this conjunction, and it is actually a very powerful way of presenting a contrast. Do not listen to those who persuasively argue against it – it is merely a reflection of a common misconception.

can, could, may, might – in proper English, can denotes ability, may permission. Many authors now use can in the sense of ability as well. Might is the past of may. Although the two are often interchangeable, careful writers will note that may refers to what is possible, factual, or could be factual, while might suggests uncertainty, hypothesis, or contradiction to fact. The same difference applies for can and could: the former expresses certainty, the latter doubt. Could is also used for conditional sentences to express some doubt, replacing the definite will: if you call us, we could make this happen. See more in in “modals” under the Grammar section.

case – should be used in a medical or law context. For other more common yet inflated expressions, see Words to Avoid.

censure, criticize – censure expresses blame or disapproval; criticize may do the same, but also has the meaning of evaluating both merits and faults of a person or work.

cite, quote – to cite is to provide reference to the source of information, as in a footnote or endnote. To quote is to repeat the words of another verbatim. In academic writing, a citation (or a footnote/endnote in the humanities) must follow a quotation.

classic, classical – generally interchangeable, but careful authors use classic for important or authoritative, and classical for describing works of art and literature referred to as “classics” (or produced in antiquity, the renaissance, etc.).

cohort – should not be used to refer to an individual, as in companion. The word originally meant a Roman military unit, and is now correctly used to describe groups of people, or a group with some common interest or connection.

coincidence – by definition involves at least two incidents, and is not a synonym for fortunate or unfortunate: it was a coincidence that the weather was so beautiful today is  wrong, we were shopping at the mall and met by coincidence is right.

collision – refers to the impact of two moving bodies. Thus the two planes collided is proper usage; the quite common the car collided with a wall is not.

compare – compare to is used to point out similarities between objects considered to be of different orders; compared with is used to show differences between objects considered to be of similar orders.

complement, compliment – complement, a verb, means to complete, fill in a gap or join another to create a whole; compliment, a noun, means an expression of praise or admiration.

compulsive, compulsory – the first means of or relating to an irresistible urge; the second, required by law.

comprise, compose, constitute, consist of – comprise means to contain or embrace; the structure is comprised of should be avoided. Compose and constitute are opposites: the school is composed of a number of departments vs. a number of departments constitute a school. Consist of means made up of or composed of.

conclude, decide – to conclude implies some consideration or judgement of a matter. To decide may or may not imply the same, as a decision can be taken without prior thinking.

consequent, subsequent – both denote one thing that happened after another; consequent implies that the second event happened because of the first, subsequent does not.

contagion, infection – the first means the communication of disease from one person to another; the second refers to the process of infecting – to infect referring to affecting with a disease-causing organism.

contemporary, modern –  contemporary means to be living, occurring, existing at, or dating from the same time. It also has the meaning of occurring or belonging to the present. Modern also means of the present or recent times, but implies a contrast with a more remote past. It is also used to speak of something characterized by up-to-date technology, ideas, etc.

continual, continuous – both mean the frequent repeating or lasting of something; continual suggests intervals or interruptions, while continuous means to go on without any interruptions. Continual can be replaced by intermittent; continuous by uninterrupted.

convince, persuade – although often used interchangeably, there are differences in meaning between the two. Convince is limited to the mind, whereas persuade is a change of mind that results in action.

cost, price, value, worth – a cost is whatever one pays for an item. A price, what the seller asks for. Value and worth both mean the regard that something is held to deserve, but value refers to a recognized standard, whereas worth to whatever an item means to the buyer.

couple – in strict usage, couple means two individuals of the same sort or group considered together. It is not to be used for items or to describe time, and does not bear the meaning of few as in in a couple of days.

covetous, envious, jealous – a covetous person desires someone else has; an envious one feels bitterness toward another because he/she has more; a person who is jealous may be feeling or showing envy of another’s achievements, suspicion of one’s unfaithfulness, or may be vigilant of one’s assets or rights. Covetousness and envy are always bad; Jealousy may be good or bad.

cynical – popularly used in the sense of contemptuous, the actual meaning of cynical is  distrustful of others’ sincerity, doubtful as to whether something will happen or is worthwhile, or concerned only with one’s own interests.

data – is plural (sing. datum), just like phenomena (phenomenon), strata (stratum), and media (medium). As such, traditional authors will always use it with verbs in the plural (the data suggest, not suggests). Data and media, however, are now accepted as singular as well, as their old Latin singular forms are not commonly in use.

decimate – literally means to kill every tenth person, this word now has the accepted meaning of to inflict serious casualties (but not heavy damage). Decimate should not be used when meaning complete destruction, or when a percentage of the damage is mentioned.

deduce, deduct – the first means to derive by reasoning; the second, to subtract, reduce, or take away.

deduct, subtract – both mean to reduce; deduct is used with amounts or quantities,  subtract with numbers.

definite, definitive – the first means clearly stated, decided, or true; the second, an authoritative conclusion.

delay, postpone – delay means to make someone or something late or slow; postpone means to reschedule for a later time than originally planned.

dilemma – a situation in which a choice has to be made between two or more undesireable alternatives. Nowadays, it is being used to describe a difficulty in choice, problem, or quandary.

discover, invent – one discovers what has already been in existence yet unknown to humans; one invents something new.

discreet, discrete – discreet means careful, judicious, or circumspect in one’s speech or actions; discrete means separate, distinct, or disconnected.

disinterested, uninterested – the first means impartial; the second indifferent.

distinct, distinctive – the first means clearly distinguishable, different by nature; the second,  characteristic of one person or thing.

divided into, comprised of – it is hard to distinguish between the two, but: A pealed orange is divided into pieces; a watermelon is comprised of flesh, seeds, and skin.

due to – strictly, it means attributable to as in he died due to terminal illness.  A less precise yet common definition among many writers is through or because of.

effect – as a noun, it means result or influence. Its compatible verb is to affect. As a verb, effect means to bring about or cause something to happen.

either – the correct usage requires or to follow either, as in: either I come with you or I stay home. The placement of or in the sentence is of importance, as a construction such as: either I accompany her or him is incorrect. Or has to be followed by a structure that parallels that which follows either. Either should not be used in the meaning of both or each.

elder, older – elder can only refer to persons; older, to persons or things.

empty, vacant – empty is the opposite of full, vacant of occupied. Empty can be used in the sense of not occupied, where it suggests a situation of shorter duration than vacant.

endemic, epidemic, pandemic – endemic refers to a disease prevalent in a given area or society. In an endemic area outbreaks occur often, though the disease does not have to be present all the time. An epidemic is a disease spreading rapidly an area or a group of people. It implies a contagious disease that affects a large percentage of the population. Pandemic is a widespread epidemic that may affect entire regions, countries, or the world.

enormity, enormous – this noun does not have the same meaning as its parallel adjective, enormous. Enormity does not mean great in size but rather extreme wickedness, monstrous evil, or outrageousness.

envisage, envision – often used interchangeably, envisage means to conceive of something as a possibility for the future, while envision means to imagine or visualize something in the mind.

epitome – does not mean the height of or top, but rather the quintessence of something , a summary, or an abstract.

eruption, irruption – the first means to break or burst out, the second to break in suddenly or forcibly.

exceedingly, excessively – the first means much, the second too much, and has an implied negative meaning.

extenuate – often misused to mean excuse, the definition of the word is to make something seem less serious or more forgivable, to soften the severity of one’s deeds, or to make thin.

farther, further – farther and farthest denote physical distance, and can only be used in this sense. Further and furthest originally referred to distance in a figurative or abstract sense. Nowadays, further and furthest are also used to describe physical distance, though careful authors will make a distinction between the two.

feasible, possible – many authors use the two interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Feasible refers to an ability to do something. With few exceptions, it should not be used in the sense of likely or probable. Possible also refers to the capability of doing something, but that thing may happen regardless of one’s ability or involvement. Possible also denotes an event that can but won’t certainly happen. While possible is often followed by that, feasible never does.

fewer, less – Fewer is used with words denoting people or countable things. Less is used with mass nouns, or to describe things that cannot be counted. Less is also used for measurement or expressions of time and with numbers, but it is incorrect to use it with count nouns and people.

hanged, hung – both are past participles of hang. The first is used to describe a method of execution; the second to denote items (a picture was hung on the wall).

hardly, barely, scarcely, rarely – in many senses interchangeable and meaning with great difficulty or used to suggest something is true only to an insignificant degree. Scarcely also implies quantity, and barely has the meaning of only just, almost not, or a short time before. All four words should not be used with negative constructions, as they are already treated as if they were negative, and a double negative is not allowed in English grammar.

healthy, healthful – the first means in a condition of health; the second denotes something promoting health. Nowadays, healthy is popularly used in the sense of healthful, but careful writers will say healthful foods and not healthy foods.

historic, historical – historic means notable or significant in history or something that changes the course of human events; historical relates to past events.

hopefully – one of the most debated adverbs among linguists. Initially, it meant with hope or in a hopeful manner. The meaning used since the 1960s is I hope or it is to be hoped. Strunk and White strongly oppose the modern usage, while Fowler’s Modern English Usage allows it. I personally feel language changes with time, and, although the new meaning might be offensive to conservative authors, it is probably here to stay.

however – should not start a sentence when the meaning is to negate what preceded it. Nevertheless, nonetheless, or even but are good substitutions. When however starts a sentence, it bears the meaning of in whatever way: however well he behaves, he will still be reprimanded for his actions.

illegible, unreadable – the illegible is not clear enough to be read; the unreadable can mean that, but is usually used to denote something that is too dull or difficult to deserve reading.

imply, infer – imply means to suggest something in a speaker’s/writer’s words or tone without stating it explicitly. Infer is often followed by from and means to deduce, surmise, or conclude something based on what has been said/written.

indict, indite – indict means to formally accuse or charge someone with a serious crime, and is usually used in the passive construction be indicted for. Indite means to write down or compose.  The two are often confused for similar pronunciation.

ingenious, ingenuous – the first means skillful or inventive; the second, artless, open, sincere, or innocent (in a good sense).

in regard to – that’s the correct phrase, and not in regards to. Alternatively, as regards can be used.

intense, intensive – essentially of similar meaning, intense relates to emotional responses, or how one feels about something; intensive relates to objective descriptions and does not convey opinion or attitude.

judicial, judicious, judiciary – judicial means relating to judgement or the administration of justice; judicious means prudent, reasonable. Judiciary refers to the judicial branch of the government, judges collectively, or the court system.

kin – kin means one’s family or relatives, and can also refer to a division of people or animals with shared attributes. It cannot denote a single individual.

lack, want, absence, dearth – lack means to be partially or totally without something, such as food, medication, clothes, etc.; want means to lack something and to have a desire for it: one may lack an umbrella, but would be in want of it if it started to rain. Absence refers to the complete nonexistence of someone or something. While lack implies insufficiency, absence means being totally without something or someone. When something is in high demand and low supply to make it costly, one uses dearth.

last, latest – the first means the one that comes after all others and marks the end. There will be no others after it. The second means the one that comes after all others in time at the moment of speech, but may be followed by others in the future. Last also has idiomatic uses, such as last Wednesday, as the one before the present; and the last person I expect to see here as something that is far from likely.

later, latter – later means something that occurs after another, or toward the end; latter is the last of a group, or the one that occurs closest to the end. The latter is the second of two, and is the opposite of former.

less, fewer – the first refers to quantity in general, and is used with numbers and time expressions; fewer refers to people or countable things. Less people or less words are incorrect expressions in standard English.

like – commonly used in place of as, and there are linguists who support such usage. Strictly speaking, like should only be used to indicate fondness of something or someone, whereas the sentence the cake tastes wonderful, like a freshly baked one should read: the cake tastes wonderful, as a freshly baked one ought to.

locate – locate means to discover the exact place or position of something, or to put in place. It should not be used as a synonym for find.

marginal – does not mean minimal or minor but rather something that is barely or does not meet certain standards.

meantime, meanwhile – the two convey the same meaning (in the intervening period), but meantime is usually used as a noun, whereas meanwhile as an adverb. The words are quite overused in the English language. Careful authors should try to avoid them.

mutual – traditionally, mutual conveyed a sense of reciprocity, thus rendering expressions such as a mutual friend as incorrect. Nowadays, the latter meaning of mutual, common to two or more people, is also accepted.

myriad – can be a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it denotes “a large number” and is used in the structure a myriad of. As an adjective, it means “an indefinitely large number [of something]” or “made up of many different elements,” and the correct usage would be one city comprises myriad houses. Many editors and English teachers tend to mark the noun usage (a myriad of) as incorrect, but in fact it had existed in the English language centuries before the adjectival one entered usage in the nineteenth century.

naked, nude, bare – naked refers to someone who isn’t wearing any clothes, or who is revealing a part of the body. Nude is used to describe a human body without clothes. In many senses the two are synonymous, in which case naked is more forceful. Bare implies the lack of conventional covering to a certain body part.

nation, country, state – nation is a people united by common history, culture, descent, or language, who usually inhabit a certain territory. Country may describe the physical features of a region, a nation that is sovereign in a region, or one’s place of birth. A state is a nation or country organized politically under one government. Thus, the English form a nation, England is a country, and the United Kingdom is a state (although is often referred to as a kingdom).

neither – should not be used to produce a double negative, which is a structure that does not exist in standard English. Thus, either should be used in the sentence I don’t like her neither. When used with nor, the two parts of the sentence need to mirror each other (as with either and or): I saw myself as neither father nor son is correct. I neither saw myself as father nor son is not.

nice – use sparingly in formal composition, as it is imprecise.

partly, partially – traditionalists would say that partly should be used when the meaning is not entirely or to some extent. Partly can also help prevent ambiguity as partial also means biased. Nowadays, the two are often used interchangeably, though careful writers will note when a possible confusion calls for the use of partly.

place, put – often interchangeable, put is considered to be a more general term than place, which denotes greater care or precision, or a more specific description or location.

population, populace, populous – population means the inhabitants of an area, town, or country, and so does populace. Populous means having a large or dense population.

preceding, previous, prior to – preceding means that which comes immediately before, whereas previous refers to that which comes before at any time, and is often used with plural (correct: in the previous pages incorrect: in the preceding pages). Prior to is not a good substitution for before, and should only be used when something is done before another thing as a necessary preparation (as in: they have read the reports prior to attending the meeting).

principal, principle – the first means something that is fundamental or most important; the second, a basic belief or truth.

prototype – a prototype is a first or preliminary model of something (usually a machine), from which others will be developed or produced. Nowadays, it is also used to denote a typical example of something, although careful authors will avoid such usage.

proportions, dimensions – proportions implies a relationship of one thing or part to another or to a whole; dimensions refers to size.

protagonist – the leading or a major character in a movie, play, or novel, as well as a main figure in a real situation, protagonist is not the opposite of antagonist (adversary).

pupils, students – the first indicates those attending elementary school; the second to those in high school or at a university.

quota – a quota is a limited number or amount of people or things, a defined quantity, or a share of goods. It does not indicate a number in general (as in I have a large quota of books).

rare, scarce – something that is rare does not occur very often, or isn’t found in large numbers; the scarce is present in quantities insufficient for the demand. Hence something can be scarce in a certain region or season, but not be rare; something that is rare is usually also scarce.

regretful, regrettable – regretful is the one who shows regret; regrettable means giving rise to regret, or to something undesirable. This distinction is usually not preserved in regretfully and regrettably, both meaning in a regretful manner.

responsible, answerable, accountable, liable – responsible means being in charge of a deed, and implies a possible penalty for failing to carry out assigned duties. It should not be used when the intended meaning is produced, caused, resulted in. Answerable implies a legal or moral obligation. Accountable is stronger than responsible, indicating that the entrusted person will be called to explain how the trust has been carried out. Liable has a restricted meaning, referring only to the assignment of blame or payment of damages due to a mishap.

restricted – restricted denotes kept within limits or bounds, and should not be used where the meaning is small, scant or scanty.

rightfully, rightly – both share the meaning of justly. But rightfully indicates having legitimate rights to property, position, or status, whereas rightly means correctly or with good reason.

secondly, thirdly, etc.  – numbers should not be suffixed by -ly; use first, second, third, etc.

shall, should – should is the past of the modal shall. The two express a difference of mood, as shall is used to denote the future, a strong assertion, intention, or command. Should indicates obligation, correctness, or a desirable or expected state. It also implies less certainty than shall, or a past rather than future tense.

synthetic – the word means something that has been concocted or manufactured. It should not be used in the sense of false or fake.

they – plural, and hence should not be used when a singular pronoun is called for. They cannot be used with anyone, each, each one, everybody, everyone, somebody, someone and names of countries or cities (the pronoun for a country is it, not they).

unique – means “without like or equal.” There cannot be degrees of uniqueness, such as in more unique or most unique.

vice versa – a Latin term meaning in-turned position, which in proper English refers to the main items in a preceding statement the other way around. It should not be used to mean the opposite or the contrary.

will, would – would is the past of the modal will. The two convey a different mood: will indicates certainty, whereas would a doubt.

while – should not be used in the sense of but or and. The best substitute for it is a semicolon.

worthwhile – should not be used in the sense of promising or to indicate something deserves some action.

 

Sources:

Marjorie Skillin and Robert Gay, Words into Type (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 446-69.

The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition, http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html, accessed 10 August 2010 [note: the link now refers to the 16th edition].

The New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1979), 39-65.