12 Words You’ve Been Using Wrong

words you've been using wrong

I love grammar. One of my favorite classes in college was desktop publishing, but only because I enjoyed finding out that I had been using a word incorrectly for years. I’m weird?

Lately, I’ve been Tweeting grammar tips a lot, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people have found them to be useful lessons and reminders. So I decided to put a list together of commonly confused words that you can start brutally correcting people on (technically, there are 19 words).

Let me know in the comments how many words you’ve been using the right way, but be honest…

1. TRAVESTY

I’ve committed this error many times because it’s so easy to confuse the word with tragedy. But travesty has nothing to do with a tragic event. A travesty is an absurdly false representation of something, like a parody.

2. WHO AND WHOM

This is also an easy mistake. We tend to make these words interchangeable because they’re both pronouns, but they’re actually quite different. An easy rule to keep in mind is that who should always be able to replace he, and whom should always replace him.

In other words, you use who when the word is doing the action, and you use whom when the action is being done to the word.

3. ANXIOUS

The word should only be used if you’re uneasy or uncomfortable with what’s about to happen. The word is not interchangeable with excited or eager.

4. PERUSE

Many people believe that peruse means to skim through a book, but it means the opposite. If you’re perusing a book, then you are reading it thoroughly.

5. WHICH AND THAT

This trips a lot of people up. That is a restricting word, and it excludes information. Which adds information that is not essential. For example:

  • Apples that are ripe are ready to be picked.

That is used because only ripe apples are ready to be picked.

  • My work week, which ends on Friday, is five days long.

In this case, which is adding more to the sentence. If I used that, then the meaning would change completely.

  • My work week that ends on Friday is five days long.

Here, I’m saying that only a certain type of work week is five days long.

6. MOOT

The word doesn’t mean that something is pointless or redundant. If you’re saying something is a moot point, then you are saying it is open for discussion and has an uncertain definition.

7. DISCRETE AND DISCREET

Even journalists get this wrong on occasion. Discrete means that something is separate and distinct.

  • The football team has to work as one crew rather than discrete sections.

Discreet is the word you know as being quiet and secretive.

  • We kept our plans for the merger discreet in order to prevent a panic.

8. BECAUSE AND SINCE

This is a common mistake that can be difficult to adjust to. You should only use because if it is stating a reason that the reader doesn’t already know. It can go in the beginning of the sentence or the middle.

Since is used if you’re stating a reason the reader should already know, so the word is used to emphasize the explanation. That is why it is incorrect to use this definition of  since in the middle of a sentence. It always has to be in the beginning, unless you’re referring to since as a word that denotes time.

  • Because he’s allergic to pollenTom has to take medicine in the spring.
  • Tom has to take medicine in the spring because he’s allergic to pollen.
  • Since the school year starts in the fall, students have to wear jackets.
  • I’ve been nervous about driving ever since my car accident.

9. ENORMITY

People like to equate this word with enormous, but it has its own specific function. Enormity refers to the large size of something that is bad or wrong, like a crime.

  • The enormity of his wrongdoing was displayed on the news.

10. PRINCIPAL AND PRINCIPLE

These words have pretty different meanings, so it shouldn’t be too hard to keep them straight. Just remember that principal as an adjective means primary or first in line, which makes sense when you compare it to the principal (noun) of a school.

principle, on the other hand, has to do with laws and beliefs that one holds. An easy way to keep the words separate is to remember that principal is usually an adjective and principle is always a noun.

11. COMPELLED

I don’t know why we get this wrong in the first place. People like to say that they felt compelled to do something, implying that they made this choice of their own volition. Compelled actually means that you were forced to do something or someone obligated you to do something you didn’t want to do.

I suppose this false trend started when people wanted to use the word as hyperbole, but it is still wrong to use it this way.

12. BRING AND TAKE

Last but not least, the difference between bring and take comes down to the direction in which you’re going. If you’re going toward a place, you take something with you. If someone is coming toward you, they are bringing something.

Keep in mind that some of these words have wiggle room, and others may disagree with me (thanks to the ever-evolving dictionary of words). But I hope this has at least opened your mind to the idea that words and their meanings matter, and fully realizing this can help you become an exceptional writer.

Thanks for reading! You can subscribe to this blog by email via the prompt on the left sidebar. Otherwise, be sure to stay connected with me on Twitter (@JonNegroni). I’ll follow you back if you say something witty and awesome.

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20 thoughts

  1. In the interest of grammatical correctness…I’m not 100% sure, but I think the word ‘wrong’ is used incorrectly in the title of your post. I think it should have been ‘wrongly’. Admittedly that sounds funny, so I would have personally used ‘incorrectly’. Nice post, though. I love grammar too. My most annoying common misuse of language is when people say “I could care less.”

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    1. Hey Matt, no worries! It’s correct because “wrong” can be used as an adverb, not just an adjective. Otherwise, you’d be right to say that an adjective shouldn’t follow “using,” hence you suggested “incorrectly,” which is an adverb. That is why it is also correct to write, “What was I doing wrong?” And yes, I agree that the “I could care less” line is just lazy.

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  2. I always remember Ned Flanders in The Simpsons saying “I am going to put the PAL back into Principal!” and I have never gotten them confused SINCE.

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  3. It’s used less often, but doesn’t the word “abundance” not just mean a lot, but too much? So, if you write that you received an abundance of compliments, it means that you received too many compliments than were necessary or more than you wanted. That’s what I remember reading, anyway. I like this post a lot! Very helpful to people who keep on using words incorrectly (like me).
    –JW

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  4. Something to add to the list. The difference between “continual” and “continuous”.

    CONTINUAL refers to something that frequently recurs. If your neighbor stands by your mail box and picks his nose every now and then, over a period of a month, or once a week, you would say that he continually annoys you with his behavior.

    CONTINUOUS refers to something that keeps happening without interruption, eg. if your neighbor stands by your mail box 24/7 for three days, you would say that your neighbor continuously annoys you (by standing next to the mail box and picking his nose).

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  5. Does this mean that Doctor Who should be called Doctor Whom, or do the laws of grammar not apply in the UK?

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    1. “Wrong” is both an adverb and an adjective, so it is correct here. Wrong is a cool word, actually, because it is a noun and a verb as well.

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  6. How about momentarily? It does not mean ‘in a moment’ but ‘for a little while’. It really grated on me hearing Maggie Smith saying it in HP1.

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  7. (1) In #8 I would move “only” in the second sentence to “You should use ‘because’ only if it. . . .” (2) In #10 remind folks (hello, bloggers about finance) that “principal” (not “principle”) is the noun for the original sum invested or lent. (3) Another worth posting is “presently” vs. “currently.” (4) The one I always have to look up is “masterful” vs. “masterly.” Thank you, Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which, incidentally, gives both meanings for “momentarily.” (5) Perhaps you would consider doing a post sometime on parallel construction and why it’s worth making the effort.

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