70 Words (and Phrases) You’re Probably Using All Wrong
You won't make these cringeworthy mistakes ever again.
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People misuse words all the time. It’s not hard to grammatically mess up, especially when everyone else is doing it too. There’s so much to learn when it comes to the English language whether it’s palindrome examples, funny words that sound fake, or even the hardest words to spell, so don’t sweat it if you have been getting some of these phrases wrong. But hey, the first step is recognizing the errors and for all intents and purposes, this list will make you aware of even the smallest mishaps. In this day and age, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.
For all intensive purposes
If you’re using this phrase to mean “for all practical purposes,” then for all intents and purposes, you’re doing it wrong (see what we did there?). The phrase, “for all intensive purposes” is a mondegreen, which is defined as a misheard version of a phrase, saying or slogan. The phrase you’re actually looking for (as you’ve probably guessed by now) is “for all intents and purposes.”
A doggy dog world
What you meant to say was “dog eat dog world,” right? If so, it’s understandable that you misheard/reshaped it as a “doggy dog world.” This type of error is known as an “eggcorn,” which reshapes an established word or phrase phonetically, without changing the actual meaning of the phrase (just as “eggcorn” reshapes the word “acorn” without changing its actual meaning).
All and all
We hope that what you meant to say was “all in all,” which is an idiom (a word or phrase whose meaning can’t be understood outside its cultural context) meaning “everything being taken into account.” If you actually meant “all and all,” then you’re just being redundant. Please never do this when it comes to acronyms, or grammar snobs will be saying you have RAS (repetitive acronym syndrome. But if you’re looking to be concise, you might want to consider replacing “all in all” with “in sum.”
Day in age
In this day and age, you should really know better than to say “day in age.” It’s an eggcorn, which means we know you meant well. But now you know better.
The thing about being butt naked, is that it’s more than just your butt that’s hanging out there making you look foolish. The actual term is “buck naked,” although truth be told, so many people have misheard it and misstated it as “butt naked” that grammarians actually are beginning to accept “butt naked” as a proper idiom.
All for not
If you think this grammar exercise is all for not, then you might want to reconsider—because nothing is actually “all for not,” whereas something that is pointless may, indeed, be “all for naught.” Yeah, it’s old-timey. But it’s the right way to say it. Sorry, not sorry.
You know when someone’s droning on and on and on about something to the point where you feel like you’re going to be sick? Well, they’re going on ad nauseam. It’s Latin for “to sickness.” We know the “ad” sounds an awful lot like “at,” but we can assure you it’s not. And if we go on ad infinitum (to infinity) about it, you’ll forgive us, won’t you?
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This one gets pronounced incorrectly more than it gets spelled incorrectly, simply because, in writing, it tends to end up abbreviated as “etc.” But it’s pronounced “Et-CEH-Terrah.” There is no “x” to be found anywhere.
Safety deposit box
The phrase referring to a box in which valuables are stored is a “safe-deposit box” because it’s a box in which you can make a safe deposit. Not a safety deposit. But this eggcorn is highly understandable because when you say “safe-deposit box” aloud, the first two syllables run together to sound exactly like “safety.”
We assume you’re using “supposably” to mean “according to what many believe.” If so, then the word you’re actually looking for is “supposedly.”
If what you mean is “without a shadow a doubt,” then you have two choices, and neither of them is “undoubtably.” You can say either “undoubtedly” or “indubitably.” Either one is correct. Just don’t mash them together to create an eggcorn.
Yeah, yeah, we know what you’re about to say: The Merriam Webster Dictionary acknowledges irregardless as a “word” because for all intents and purposes (see what we did there?), its improper use has been so stubborn and pervasive that it’s become an actual word. However, “it is still a long way from the general acceptance,” the dictionary editors acknowledge as they recommend that everyone please remove the “ir” from the beginning of irregardless and call it what it is: regardless.
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Did you say “should of” when you really meant “should have“? That’s another eggcorn, but now you know better. It’s “should have,” “would have” and “could have.” There is no “of” in any of these phrases.
This one could get dangerous because it literally means the opposite of what you think it means (and yes, that was the correct use of “literally“). Inflammable means the same thing as flammable, which is to say, “combustible” or “capable of being set on fire. So if you’re in the market for a good pot-holder, you should ask for one that’s not flammable.
You’re welcome to use the word “entitled” to describe someone who believes him or herself to be inherently deserving of special treatment. But if you use it interchangeably with the word “titled,” you’re doing it wrong. Instead, just say “titled,” as in “that book, titled The Leftovers, was made into an HBO series.”
If you’re trying to say that someone is “very famous,” then you’re using the wrong word. “Infamous” means “famous for a negative reason.” Thus, the Joker is infamous for his malicious ways and his evil laugh, while Batman is famous for solving crimes in the city of Gotham.
If you’re not talking about promising to compensate someone for damages, loss, injury, or death in exchange for advance payment, then you’re using this word wrong. If you’re talking about making sure of something, then you want to use “ensure.” If you’re talking about guaranteeing something, then you’ll want to use “assure.”
Affect versus Effect
We often confuse these two words because they sound so much alike and cover so much of the same ground. Here are some rules of thumb to follow when trying to decide which to use:
- Affect is a verb that means to have an influence on. For example: The weather affected my mood.
- Effect is a noun that refers to the influence: For example: The weather had no effect on my mood.
- Sometimes “affect” is used as a noun to refer to feeling or emotion. For example, “Her face bore a dismal affect.” Using all three together: The weather always affected her mood. I could tell by her dismal affect that she’d been feeling the effects of seven straight days of rain.”
- Sometimes “effect” is used as a verb when it means to cause something (which is a stronger verb than “affect,” which refers to merely having an influence on). Thus, you would “effect change,” and could be described as “effective.”
- By contrast, you would not use “affective” to describe someone who gets things done. The word “affective” is used to when describing moods, and especially when describing mood disorders. For example, “He has an affective disorder. We aren’t yet sure if it’s depression or anxiety.”
Poisonous versus Venomous
Poisonous refers to something that is toxic if you eat it. Venomous describes something that is poisonous if it bites you. Snakes can be venomous; they cannot be poisonous.
If you’re using this word to mean amused, but in a detached sort of way, you’re using it incorrectly. What bemused really means is that you’re bewildered or confused. In fact, if you put the sounds of these two words together, they sound a bit like “bemused,” so perhaps that will help you remember? Or here is an example of correct usage that might help: “While she was mildly amused by the movie’s comedic antics, she was nevertheless bemused by the fact that he’d taken her to a comedy when she’d said she wanted to see a romantic comedy.”
Infer versus Imply
If you’re trying to read between the lines to understand what your lover is trying to tell you, then you’re attempting to infer something that isn’t stated outright. Whatever your lover is saying in his vague and couched statements is not something he is inferring, but rather something he is implying. To imply is to strongly suggest or hint at something. You can infer what you will from what your lover implies. (We do hope it works out for you two.)
Between versus Among
If you’re trying to decide which of two people or things you will pick, you are going to decide between them. Add a third, and “between” should become “among.” That said, the Oxford English Dictionary says that either “between” or “among” is appropriate in such a case, with the caveat that only among is appropriate if the people or things are regarded collectively rather than individually. For example: There was agreement among members that fees should not be raised (rather than between members).
Lay versus Lie
A person only lies down. A person does not lay down, unless that person is laying down a thing, such as a book or another direct object. You can also lay down the law. And hens lay eggs.
There is an exception here, and that is if you’re talking about a person lying down in the past tense. If what you’re talking about is what you did last night, then you laid down. This is not to be confused with the past tense of the word “lie,” when used to refer to a non-truth, in which case the past tense is “lied” as in, “He told a lie. Therefore, he lied.”
Principal versus Principle
These two words comprise a set of homophones: words pronounced alike that have different meanings and/or spellings. Homophones cause a great deal of confusion in the English language. And this here is a prime example.
The trick to keeping these two straight is to use “principal” in reference to a person and “principle” in reference to a standard, rule, or belief. Remember this: There’s a “pal” in “principal,” especially when the principal in question replaces detention with meditation.
Capitol versus Capital
Here is another set of homophones, and if you’re anything like us, you find yourself pausing and thinking whenever you have to choose between them (in writing, obviously, because when said aloud, they sound exactly the same). But we’re solving this once and for all:
- Capitol refers to a building, and specifically, the building where legislators meet. The term “Capitol Hill” refers not to the fact that Washington, D.C., is the capital of our nation, but to the neighborhood that houses the building where Congress meets.
- Capital is pretty much every other use. It refers to the most important city or the governmental seat of a country, county, state, or other regions. It refers to an upper-case letter. And it refers to investment funds.
Compliment versus Complement
A compliment is something nice that you say. A complement is an addition, enhancement, or improvement. Here’s one way to remember the difference between this set of homophones: Both are nice, but only the one that contains the “I” is personal. Or you can remember this sentence: “I compliment you on the way your dress complements your figure.”
Shone versus Shown
In yet another case of dastardly confusing homophones, we give you shone versus shone. Not only do they sound alike, they also refer to something you can see. But here’s the difference:
- Shown is the past participle of the word “show,” which is a verb meaning to “exhibit” or “present.”
- Shone is the past and past participle of the word “shine,” which is a verb meaning “to emit light.” Think of shone as a fancy way of saying “shined.” For example: “The moon shone brightly overhead.”
Hopefully, we’ve shown you the light, but if that’s the case, then you’ll want to say that a light was shone on your confusion. But wait, you’re probably wondering, when is it proper to use “shone” instead of “shined?” No worries, we’ve got answers-ish.
Shone definitely sounds cool when you say it out loud. Sadly, it’s not used that much.
Shone versus Shined
No one would fault you if right about now you were wondering: if “shone” is the past tense of “shined,” then why doesn’t anyone say “I had my shoes shone yesterday”?
The answer is that in modern writing, it’s considered archaic (and therefore, wrong) to use the word “shone” to refer to having shined anything so mundane as shoes, silverware, or windows. That said, it’s perfectly acceptable in modern writing to say that after you shined your shoes, your silverware, or your windows, they shone brightly.
Shone is past and past participle form of the verb shine when shine is used as an intransitive verb meaning to emit light. Shone is a comes from the Old English word scinan, meaning shed light, be radiant, illuminate.
Shown is the past participle of the word show, which is a verb meaning to make noticeable, exhibit, to present, to bestow. The word show has existed in its present form since around 1300, to mean the act of exhibiting, to view. In the early sixteenth century, show also obtained the meaning of an appearance put on with the intention to deceive. In the early eighteenth century show came to mean ostentatious display.
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Discreet versus Discrete
- Discrete means individual, separate, or distinct.
- Discreet means careful, cautious, or evidencing good judgment.
To remember the difference, think about one “e” versus two. Use one “e” to refer to something singular. Use an extra “e” to show extra care.
That said, “discretion” requires only one “e,” but when you exercise discretion, you’re adding two more.
Emigrate versus Immigrate
- When you leave your country to permanently live in another, you emigrate.
- When you arrive in another country to live permanently, you immigrate.
To keep these two words straight, think about them in alphabetical order: you emigrate before you immigrate. You’re an emigrant before you become an immigrant. Or simply think about the fact that when you immigrate to a new country, you must pass through that new country’s “Immigration Department.”
Elicit versus Illicit
- Elicit means to draw forth or to coax out.
- Illicit means improper.
To remember which is which, think of the “e” in “elicit” as standing for the “e” in “exit.” And even if you think there’s something e-xciting about things that are illicit, consider that “illicit” contains the root, ill.
Continuous versus Continual
Both words come from the root continue, but they really shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Here is how to use them properly:
- Continuous refers to something that has no end, which is to say that if something continues ad infinitum, it is continuous.
- Continual refers to something that stops and starts.
If you’re on a continuous search for connection, you might be lonely. If your search for connection is continual, then you might be a serial dater.
Further versus Farther
They sound alike, but don’t confuse one for the other:
- Farther refers to actual physical distance, which is to say, a literal distance, as in “My car’s making a funny noise. How much farther is it to the service station?”
- Further refers to a figurative distance, as in “How much further can this car go before I have to sell it for scrap metal?”
Bring versus Take
Trick question: What did you bring to John’s party?
Snarky answer: Nothing, because you don’t bring stuff to parties, you take stuff to parties. I did bring home the leftover chips, however.
You bring things here. You take them there.
Home and Hone
- Hone is always a verb. It means to sharpen or make more acute. For example. you can “hone” a skill.
- Home is a noun that is also used sometimes as a verb to mean to move in toward a destination or target with accuracy. For example, you can “home in on that delicious smell and realize it’s freshly baked cookies.“
Although you might think that you can “hone in” on a target, the proper word is “home.” The rule to remember is that if you need to add “in” or “in on” after the verb, you probably should be using “home.” If not, then it’s “hone.”
Fleshing out versus Flushing out
If you’re talking about adding substance to something, like writing an article that you’ve merely outlined, then it’s “fleshing out,” as in adding flesh to bones.
If you’re talking about finding something that’s not easily visible, then it’s “flushing out” as in “flushing out the enemy.”
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Viable versus Feasible
Viable and feasible are often, albeit incorrectly, used interchangeably. However, viable refers to whether something is capable of surviving. Feasible refers to whether an action is possible.
Accordingly, a viable candidate must have a feasible plan.
Perpetrate versus Perpetuate
- To perpetrate something is to commit it.
- To perpetuate something is to continue it.
If you perpetrate a crime, you perpetuate criminality in our society.
Perquisite versus Prerequisite
Perquisite usually means an extra allowance or privilege. Prerequisite means something that’s required.
To remember the difference, think of the film titled The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The “perks” in the title are short for “perquisites.” What would be the prerequisites of being a wallflower, we wonder? Whatever it is, we think it more than likely involves a humblebrag.
Pored versus Poured
Ah, yet another sneaky homophone. When you’re talking about studying something intently, use “pored,” as opposed to “poured.”
Pouring refers to what you do with a liquid. But if that doesn’t help you remember, think of the pores of your skin. To see them, you must “pore” over your face in the mirror.
Prescribe versus Proscribe
To prescribe something is to command or recommend it. While you can’t prescribe a person, you can proscribe a person or a thing. To proscribe someone or something is to outlaw him, her, or it.
Regretful versus Regrettable
- Regretful means filled with regret.
- Regrettable means deplorable or unfortunate.
Accordingly, one would be regretful over one’s regrettable actions.
Sensual versus Sensuous
Both words refer to the senses. But of the two, sensuous is the less provocative word.
- Sensuous refers to things that relate to the senses or even appeal to the senses. For example, hand cream can be described as sensuous.
- Sensual also refers to things that appeal to the senses, but the connotation is erotic. For example, the way one applies their hand cream may be sensual.
If you want to describe the lines of a painting, you might use the word “sensuous.” If you want to describe the curves of a woman’s body, you can also use “sensuous,” but using “sensual” will take the conversation to a sexier place. To remember the difference, think of the word “sexual,” which is more similar in spelling to “sensual” than “sensuous.”
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Appraise versus Apprise
To appraise is to assess the value of something. The word appraise is often used in connection with real estate sales.
To apprise is to teach or inform. We at Reader’s Digest always seek to apprise you of what you want and need to know.
Canvas versus Canvass
Canvas is a type of fabric that tends to be tough and strong.
Canvass is a verb that means to try to ascertain people’s opinions.
Illusion versus Allusion
An illusion is a misleading image or impression, such as an optical illusion.
An allusion is a reference to something else, such as a literary allusion.
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Defuse versus Diffuse
Defuse is a verb that means to render a bomb non-explosive (by removing the fuse, or otherwise). It can also refer to rendering a situation less dangerous.
Diffuse is a verb that means to disperse over a wide area. Diffuse can also be used as an adjective that describes something that is not concentrated (in other words, something that might have been diffused). In the latter case, the word is pronounced with a soft s-sound, like the word “so,” as opposed to a hard s-sound like the word “use“.
Disburse versus Disperse
Both disburse and disperse are verbs that involve distributing things. But:
- Disburse means to give or hand over money or funds.
- Disperse is a verb that means to scatter, and it has nothing to do with money or funds (except in the extremely rare instance that a zillionaire decides to disperse hundred dollar bills to the community by dumping them out of his private airplane).
Eminent versus Imminent
Eminent describes something or someone prominent.
Imminent describes something that is about to happen.
Accordingly, an eminent professor of grammar predicts that your mastery of the English language will be imminent upon reading this article.
Emoticon versus Emoji
Both emoticons and emojis are graphical expressions used in electronic communication. But:
An emoticon is a typographic display intended to suggest a facial expression. For example, the emoticon for a winky-face is a semi-colon followed by a right-parenthesis.
An emoji is an actual visual image, and it need not be of a face.
Remodeling versus Renovating versus Restoring
Remodeling and restoring are terms of art to architects and interior designers, and they mean different things:
- Remodeling means changing the structure of a space. For example, if you build a second floor on a ranch house, you are remodeling it.
- Renovating refers to significantly changing a space without changing its structure. For example, if you remove your bathroom fixtures and replace them with new ones, you are renovating the bathroom. If you start moving walls or adding new windows, then you’re remodeling.
- Restoring means returning a space to its original character or use. For example, removing vinyl siding and repainting the original wood siding of a house is a restoration project.
…versus Refurbishing versus Redecorating
The term refurbishing is a form of renovating. It refers to rebuilding or replenishing with new material. You can refurbish your wood floors as part of a renovation project.
Redecorating means changing the character or scheme of space’s decor. Redecorating is the least structural of all of the aforementioned “R” terms. You can redecorate by bringing in a new sofa or hanging new posters on the wall. Remodeling, renovating, restoring, and refurbishing can involve redecorating.
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Judicial versus Judicious
Moving on from architecture and interior design to the legal world, we’re going to clear up, once and for all, the difference between judicial and judicious.
- Judicial means “connected with a court of law.”
- Judicious means “wise.”
Here’s a way to remember the difference: Not all judicial decisions are judicious.
Libel versus Slander
Both libel and slander are forms of defamation, which is the making of a statement about someone that is both false and derogatory. The difference between libel and slander is in how that statement is made.
Slander is any oral publication of a defamatory statement.
Libel is a written publication of a defamatory statement.
Alibi versus Excuse
These terms are often used interchangeably. However, they do not mean the same thing. At all.
- As a noun, “alibi” refers to proof that you were elsewhere when something happened. When someone provides an alibi for you, they are offering that proof.
- As a noun, “excuse” refers to any explanation of your behavior, it is understood that by offering an excuse, you are essentially admitting to the behavior. When someone excuses you, they are forgiving you.
Accordingly, if you ate the last piece of pie, and you offer me a good excuse (you were really, really hungry, for example), I might excuse you. If you didn’t eat the last piece of the pie, but it’s gone just the same, you might want to offer me an alibi, or have your friend offer to alibi you.
Patent versus Copyright versus Trademark
Created something you think is awesome and you want to make sure you get the credit? Then you’re going to need to know the difference between a patent, copyright, and trademark.
- If it’s an original invention of some kind, then you’ll want to look into getting a patent. If you happen to be curious about the invention of the toilet paper holder, then you’ll want to read about this guy, who holds the patent.
- If it’s something you wrote that expresses an idea in a unique way, such as a work of fiction, you’ll want to think about registering the copyright.
- If it’s a slogan or logo that identifies a product, you’re talking about a trademark.
Your versus You’re
As painful as it is to address this set of homophones, considering the widespread use of “your” in place of “you’re” and vice versa, it seems that it would be negligent not to do so. So here it is:
You’re is a contraction of two words: you and are.
Your is a possessive form of the pronoun, you. If something belongs to you, it is yours.
If you write “you’re,” then you should be able to substitute “you are” in its place. If you cannot, then use “your.” We hope you’re able to use this rule in your everyday life.
Their versus They’re
Since we went there with you’re/your, it seems wrong not to get “they’re/their” involved as well. Again, we’re talking about a set of homophones, and again, one in the set is a contraction of two words, and the other is a possessive form of a pronoun:
- They‘re is a contraction of two words: they and are.
- Their is a possessive form of the pronoun, they. If they own it, it is theirs. If it belongs to them, it is also theirs.
If you write “they’re,” then you should be able to substitute “they are” in its place. If you cannot, then use “their.” Or, possibly, there.
They’re versus There
There refers to a place that is not here. If you are referring to a place that is not here, then that calls for the use of the word, “there.” If you are using this word to refer to “they are” or the possessive form of the pronoun “they,” then you do not want to use this word.
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It’s versus its
Yep, we’re going here too, and maybe it’s because we’re just a little compulsive about grammar.
- It’s is a contraction of two words: it and is.
- Its is the possessive form of it.
Here’s a rule you can use to remember the difference: Just because it’s possessive, doesn’t mean its spelling must include an apostrophe.
Nauseous versus Nauseated
Believe it or not, “nauseous” actually doesn’t mean feeling sick to your stomach or afflicted by nausea—that’s nauseated. Technically speaking, every time you say “I’m nauseous,” you’re saying that you cause or inflict nausea, as that’s the actual meaning of “nauseous.” A way to use this word correctly would be, “I knew that the milk was rotten when I got a whiff of the nauseous smell coming from the carton.” Smelling this nauseous rotten milk probably made you feel nauseated. “Nauseous” has been used to mean “nauseated” for so long, however, that many a dictionary editor has come to accept it as another meaning for the word.
Everyday versus Every Day
If you do something seven days a week, you do it every day. “Day” is a noun, and “every” is the adjective that modifies it—two different words. Meanwhile, everyday, as a single word, is an adjective that means commonplace or routine. So, no, you do not brush your teeth everyday. That just doesn’t make sense. Tooth-brushing, however, might be an everyday occurrence. Grammarist.com has a tip to make sure you’re using the correct version of these eight letters: if replacing them with “each day” makes sense, “every day” is the way to go, so make sure you’ve got that space.
Chronic versus Severe
These two terms are easily confused because both describe extreme medical conditions—but they describe different kinds of medical conditions. Though both severe and chronic conditions are not contagious, “severe” just refers to more extreme, painful versions of common maladies. Headaches, stomach aches, and coughs can be severe, but they are not life-threatening and can be cured. Chronic conditions, on the other hand, can be fatal, and, in fact, are a fairly common cause of death. Chronic conditions must last at least three months and often last a person’s entire life. Diabetes, asthma, HIV, and cancer are chronic conditions.
Well, by now you’ve probably figured out that we kind of have a thing for words. We love them! And if you use one of these regional sayings, we can probably guess exactly where you’re from.
- Grammarist: “Eggcorns and mondegreens”
- Grammarist: “Idioms”
- Grammarist: “Day in age (day and age)”
- Grammarist: “Buck naked, butt naked”
- Merriam-Webster: “irregardless”
- Merriam-Webster: “homophone”
- Dictionary.com: “Principal vs. Principle”
- Grammarist: “Shined vs. shone”
- WikiDiff: “Refurbish vs Redecorate – What’s the difference?”
- Laws: “Libel vs. Slander”
- Grammarist: “Nauseating vs. nauseous”
- Grammarist: “Everyday vs. every day”
- Difference Between: “Difference between Severe and Chronic”