How many times has it happened to you? You mean to say one thing, but end up using the completely wrong words. Even if someone calls you out on it, you’re thoroughly convinced you know what you’re talking about it. We’ve all done it. As I stated numerous times in other posts, English is a tough language.
But don’t worry, I’m here to help set you straight and clear up any confusion may have (or didn’t even know you have) about the correct usage of certain English words.
The following list contains some of the most commonly misused English words and when you should use each one.
Now you have no excuses. And whatever you do, do NOT confuse #15…
1. Accidental and Incidental
The adjective accidental means unintentional or happening by chance.
The adjective incidental means secondary or nonessential. It often refers to something that occurs in connection with a more important activity or event.
2. Affect and Effect
NOTE: If you’re in a professional field related to psychology or psychiatry, you are probably familiar with a special use of affect (with stress on the first syllable) as a noun meaning “an expressed or observed emotional response.” However, this technical term seldom appears in everyday (non-technical) writing.
3. Aid and Aide
The verb aid means to assist: to provide what is needed to achieve a goal. The noun aid refers to a person or thing that provides assistance.
An aide (from aide-de-camp) is a person who acts as a helper or an assistant.
4. Allot, A Lot, and Alot
The verb allot means to give or allow a share or portion of something.
A lot means a large amount. (A lot is often a less formal way of saying many or much).
Always spell a lot as two words, not one. (Alot is regarded as a misspelling of a lot.) See Avoid These 10 Words in Formal Writing.
5. Awhile and A While
The adverb awhile (one word) means for a short time: “Stay awhile.”
The noun phrase a while (two words) refers to a period of time: “I sat for a while and waited.”
6. Continual and Continuous
Continual means “frequently repeated” (that is, going on with occasional interruptions).
Continuous means “unceasing” (going on without interruption).
7. Demur and Demure
The verb demur means to object, to hesitate, or to voice opposition. As a noun, demur means an objection, hesitation, or delay.
The adjective demure means modest, reserved, or shy–or seemingly modest or shy.
8. Discreet and Discrete
The adjective discreet means prudently self-restrained or tactful. (The adjective discreet is related to the nouns discretion and discreetness.)
The adjective discrete means distinct or separate. (The adjective discrete is related to the noun discreteness.)
9. Emigrate and Immigrate
These two verbs have similar meanings, but they differ in point of view. Emigrate means to leave one country to settle in another. Immigrate means to settle in a country where one isn’t a native. Emigrate stresses leaving; immigrate stresses arriving.
For example, from the point of view of the British, you emigrate when you leave England to settle in Canada. From the point of view of the Canadians, you have immigrated to Canada and are considered an immigrant. Emigrate describes the move relative to the place of departure. Immigrate describes it relative to the place of arrival.
10. Evoke and Invoke
The verb evoke means to summon, call forth, or call to mind.
The verb invoke means to call for support or assistance, or to summon with incantations.
11. Fortunate and Fortuitous
The primary meaning of fortunate is “lucky” or “auspicious.”
The primary meaning of fortuitous is “accidental.” In recent decades, however, fortuitous has been used synonymously with fortunate and felicitous.
12. Good and Well
Good is usually an adjective (a good book, a good job). Good can also function as a noun (the common good).
Well is usually an adverb (runs well, a well-written essay).
In formal speech and writing, the adjective good generally follows linking verbs such as be, seem, taste, and appear.
13. Hanged and Hung
For centuries, hanged and hung were used interchangeably as the past participle of hang.
However, most contemporary usage guides insist that hanged, not hung, should be used when referring to executions: convicted killers are hanged; posters are hung.
14. Lay and Lie
- LAY (present), laid (past), and laid (past participle)
- LIE (present), lay (past), and lain (past participle)
15. Literally and Figuratively
Traditionally, the adverb literally has meant “really” or “actually” or “in the strict sense of the word.”
16. Moot and Mute
The adjective moot refers to something that is debatable or of no practical importance.
The adjective mute means unspoken or unable to speak.
17. Ordinance and Ordnance
The noun ordinance refers to a command, regulation, or long-established custom.
The noun ordnance refers to military equipment, such as weapons, ammunition, and combat vehicles.
18. Penultimate and Ultimate
As both an adjective and a noun, penultimate means next to the last. (Penultimate is not more ultimate than ultimate. See Usage Notes below.)
The adjective ultimate means last, final, elemental, fundamental, or maximum. As a noun, ultimate refers to a final point or result.
19. Sensual and Sensuous
The adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses.
Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music. But as explained in the usage notes below, this fine distinction is often overlooked.
20. Tortuous and Torturous
The adjective tortuous means winding, crooked, complex, or devious, marked by repeated twists and turns.
The adjective torturous means painful, causing torture, or extremely slow and difficult.