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Commonly Misused and Misunderstood Words, Part One

English is a complex language. It isn’t surprising that many words and phrases are commonly misused and misunderstood. There is scarcely any English speaker that doesn’t occasionally use a word or phrase incorrectly. However, if the goal is to lessen the number of times it happens, at least some of the errors can be avoided.

The reason this is true is that most frequently, people don’t realize that they are using a word wrong. Simply pointing it out can go a long way toward preventing the misuse of the words.

This is especially important to anyone who makes money from writing, including bloggers. A sad reality is that people are often seen as lacking intelligence based on improper word use. Of course, this has nothing to do with intelligence, but there is never a second opportunity to make a good first impression.

With all of this in mind, here are 10 commonly misused and misunderstood words.

#1 Penultimate

This is one that even journalists often get wrong. It is often used to mean the very top or best. Incorrect usage would be, "The new bridge was the penultimate in bridge design". Penultimate actually means "next to the bottom or worst".

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4 points

#2 Precocious

This word is commonly used to mean bad behavior or presumptuous behavior. However, the word actually means, "being unusually developmentally advanced". A child of five who can do advanced calculus would be precocious.

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4 points
    • Betty Davis Eyes lyrics:
      She’s precocious, and she knows just
      What it takes to make a pro blush
      All the boys think she’s a spy
      She’s got Bette Davis eyes

#3 Nauseous

You thought you knew the meaning of this word, didn't you? "I felt nauseous" is incorrect usage. The word actually means, "To cause nausea." Thus, the correct usage would be, "I felt nauseated."

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3 points

#4 Enormity

Enormity isn't the state of being enormous. "I couldn't believe the enormity of the airplane" would be an incorrect use of the word. Enormity actually means "extremely evil".

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3 points
    • I most often hear it in reference to a task. That is along the lines of, “I decided to put in a garden but only when I started did I realize the enormity of the task.” That is incorrect usage because putting in a garden isn’t extremely evil.

#5 Decimate

Decimate does not mean to completely destroy or anything close to it. The important part of the word is 'deci-', which means ten or tenth. To decimate is to reduce by 10%.

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3 points
    • I hear decimate used incorrectly probably once a week. Last year when we had all the forest fires in Montana, there were several different news stories by different people that mentioned how one fire or another had decimated the forest. In most cases, they meant ‘destroyed’.

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#6 Disinterested

'Disinterested' is so misused that it is incredible. The word does not mean uninterested or without interest. Disinterested means that the person isn't affiliated with either side of an argument and is thus is the best suited for rendering an impartial opinion or decision. In other words, someone who is disinterested is unbiased.

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3 points

#7 Irregardless

This might surprise some people but any use of 'irregardless' is incorrect. Irregardless isn't a word. It is a non-word mashing of irrespective and regardless.

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3 points
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#8 Less

The term has to do with quantities that can't actually be counted. Thus, this would be correct: "I drank less milk today than I drank yesterday." Store aisles that proclaim, "10 items or less" are using the word incorrectly. It should be "10 items or fewer".

How many of these words do you sometimes use incorrectly? How often do you see or hear someone misusing them?

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3 points
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#9 Hung

Incorrect usage would be, "They put a noose around the villain's neck and hung him." Hung simply means suspended. What 'they' did to the villain was hanged him. Correct usage would be, "The apple hung from the tree." The word does not mean suspended by the neck.

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2 points

#10 Noisome

This word isn't especially common in usage, however, it has nothing at all to do with being loud or noisy. It means 'to stink'. A garbage dump is often noisome.

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2 points

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Written by Rex Trulove

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