Beyond Words - Language Blog

Egregious English: 20 Commonly Misused English Words and Phrases

In a 2008 episode of Family Guy, baby Stewie becomes President of the World and immediately replaces every law with four simple maxims:

1. All straight to DVD Disney movies are hereby banned.

2. All milk must come from Hilary Swank

3. Anyone who sees Peter Griffin must throw apples at him

4. Any person who uses the words irregardless, a-whole-nuther, or all-of-a-sudden will be sent to a work camp.

“Work camp” is a phrase that carries a lot of baggage, stuff that Stewie won’t learn about till well after he’s potty trained, so I’ll give the young leader a break and suggest that language offenders instead be signed up for mandatory “Happy English Re-education and Obedience Camp.”

Here are a few of the lessons one might learn at HERO Camp:

Lose and Loose
To lose (verb) something is to be unable to find it, whereas something that is loose (adj) is not tightly secured.

Compliment and Complement
A compliment is a flattering statement, while a complement is a counterpart that, in conjunction with another, makes a whole. Both words can be used as nouns and as verbs, as in to compliment someone or to complement something.

Exasperate and Exacerbate
Both of these verbs have rather negative meanings: One may exasperate a person by provocation or irritation and exacerbate the situation by increasing its severity.

Disinterested and Uninterested
Someone who is disinterested is unbiased and impartial, capable of making an objective decision. On the other hand, someone who is uninterested is merely indifferent, and probably bored. For example, a major league umpire is required to be a disinterested judge calling the events of the game, but if he were uninterested in baseball, he would likely find a different job.

Possessive Pronouns and Contractions
Issues with the possessive form of pronouns and similar-sounding contractions can creep into even the most meticulous writer’s work. These include the following:

Their / There / They’re
Your / You’re
Whose / Who’s
Its / It’s

The first word in each set is a possessive pronoun and used to indicate who has what, as in the sentence, “Your dog bit their neighbor. Whose fault is that?” Possessive pronouns are not the same as their homophonic counterparts – contractions – which are personal pronouns bonded with a form of the verb to be.

Irregardless
Irregardless is not a word. The word of intent in this case is regardless.

All intensive purposes instead of All intents and purposes
This is an example of an eggcorn (a mistaken substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar). The term eggcorn was coined by linguist, Mark Liberman, on the preeminent linguistics blog, Language Log. For all intents and purposes, one should only say the correct term: all intents and purposes.

Literally as an intensifier
Literally means in a literal manner, or a strict sense. People often misuse literally to intensify a statement, such as “The camera operator literally just stood there while the man was beaten.” Also, people use literally to mean its exact opposite–figuratively. For example, “If another telemarketer calls, I will literally jump out the window.” Will you?

Overuse of Random
For example, the “25 Random Things About Me” meme that went around the Internet recently. Most were not really “random.” Also, a couple years ago, I started hearing people describe themselves as being “a totally random person” or saying, “I don’t talk to totally random people.” I don’t know what that means.

Unnecessary Quotation Marks
Quotation marks are correctly used for quoting a person or text word for word, or to single out a word as coming from another source, or to indicate ironic use. Millions of hilarious examples of misused quotation marks exist on signs across the country, and they are being cataloged on the blog, Unnecessary Quotation Marks daily. An example would be a sign in a restroom that reads, Employees must wash “hands”–if by “hands” they mean something else, then I don’t want to know.

Using ironic to describe things that are coincidental.
I’m tempted to throw the blame for this one on Alanis Morissette, but I think hers was a case of “art” imitating life. Nevertheless, rain on your wedding day is not irony.

I could care less instead of I couldn’t care less
If you could care less, then your level of caring is not as nugatory as you want to indicate. If you couldn’t care less, then you don’t care much at all. The correct phrase is I couldn’t care less.

That and Which
The late, great writer, David Foster Wallace, had the following to say about distinguishing between that and which:

There is widespread ignorance about how to use that as a relative pronoun, and two that-errors are so severe that teachers, editors, and other high-end readers will make unkind judgments about you if you commit them. The first is to use which when you need that. Writers who do this usually think the two relative pronouns are interchangeable, but that which makes you look smarter. They aren’t, and it doesn’t. If there needs to be a comma before the relative pronoun, you need which; otherwise, you need that. Examples: We have a massive SUV that we purchased on credit last month; The massive SUV, which we purchased on credit last month, seats us ten feet above any other driver on the road.

The second that-error that DFW describes is that of that instead of who or whom.

That and Who
I’ll let David explain this one by continuing where we broke off:

…There’s a basic rule: who and whom are the relative pronouns for people, that and which are the relative pronouns for everything else…It so happens that you can occupy a bright child for most of a very quiet morning by challenging her to use that five times in a row in a single coherent sentence, to which stumper the solution is all about the present distinction: He said that that that that that writer used really should have been a who.

Free Gift
I would hope that no one would make me pay for the gift they intend to give me.

Misuse of Beg the Question
No matter which newspaper prints it, or which anchor man spurts it, To beg the question does NOT mean to invite an obvious question, as in: That begs the question, was the President aware of the committee’s actions? FAIL. To beg the question comes from the Latin petitio principii, which is a kind of logical fallacy where one bases a conclusion on a questionable premise. Here is an example of Begging the Question:

A man who has studied law to its highest degree is a brilliant lawyer, for a brilliant lawyer has studied law to its highest degree. –Oscar Wilde

Comments

  1. This is lots of fun. Thanks!

    A couple of comments:

    Your Possessive Pronouns and Contractions missed the granddaddy of them all:
    its/it’s

    There’s another (small) issue:

    Camp”.
    “to be.”
    “hands”.
    window.”
    people”.

    all appear in this article.

    Maybe we can do a follow-up article on 20 common punctuation issues?

    Thanks again. -Glenn

    • Thanks, Glenn!

      Also, good eye. American usage rules for commas and periods in paranthetical citations are fairly clear, even if they seem illogical sometimes:

      Commas and periods should be placed within quotations except when the cited material is a single letter, such as “X”. British rules differ on this, but ultimately it matters most to be consistent.

      I think the style with a giant opening quotation and no closing one for longer citations that you see on a lot of websites nowadays does wonders for eliminating this confusion. I use it if a citation is more than two lines of text.

      Thanks for reading the blog!

  2. Amen, we couldn’t agree more. We are constantly collecting grammar mistakes — our favorite being, of course, the apostrophe, which could be so simple. Recent favorites include classics such as:

    Open Sunday’s
    No dog’s in the park
    No camera’s allowed (sign in a large Vegas theater)

    It really is quite fascinating. Our all-time favorite apostrophe sin is the possessive pronoun in the third person singular. It’s simple: it does not take an apostrophy. You’d be surprised how many press releases we get from large corporations which cannot get this right. We also really like the affect/effect confusion.

  3. You may have seen it already, but if not, you really should watch the video of comedian Ed Byrne completely dissecting how wrong Alanis Morissette was in her song.

    YouTube link here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT1TVSTkAXg

    Also, I saw a very neat graph once explaining the “could care less”/”couldn’t care less” thing. Best way I’ve seen to explain it. I saved it, and you can see it here:
    http://i23.photobucket.com/albums/b394/mikekearn/caring-1.png

    (I hope links work on your blog, or this post will look weird.)

  4. The error I despise the most is “alot.” I am not entirely sure what an “alot” is, but many of my students seem to think they do.

  5. Pingback: Interlocked Pieces - Neat Stuff: 8-9-11

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