Commonly Confused Words

Whether you’re in high school, college, or have long left the classroom, chances are there are still a few words whose use in Standard English you may find confusing. This post will walk you through a few of the most troublesome of these, and provide links to a whole lot more.

Nonplussed as nonchalance

Today’s word of the day is nonplussed, which means “perplexed; puzzled; confounded; stopped by embarrassment.” Coined around the 1580s, nonplussed originally meant a “state where ‘nothing more’ can be done or said,’” and comes from the Latin non plus, meaning “no more, no further,” implying bafflement into speechlessness and inaction.

However, nonplussed is often mistaken for unfazed, unperturbed, and calm and collected. According to Mark Liberman at Language Log, this may be because:

The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of nonplussed — perplexed, confounded, confused, addled, befuddled, bewildered, muddled, etc. — are generally un-negated, while there are quite a few words with a sense similar to the new meaning of nonplussed that include a negative element: impasssive, unperturbed, nonchalant, unfazed.

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman at Grammarphobia also suspect people are getting mixed up between nonplussed and nonchalant, which comes from the Latin non plus calēre, “to be warm, heat.”

What irony isn’t

Ironic is another word that people don’t get quite right (ahem, Ms. Morissette).  Irony is defined as the “use of agreeable or commendatory forms of expression as to convey a meaning opposite to that literally expressed,” as well as “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” So rain on your wedding day is just sucky, not ironic. A fly in your chardonnay is just gross.

A 2008 piece in The New York Times also told us what irony isn’t: “Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity and paradox is an irony, even loosely.” Grammarphobia asserted that:

If something is coincidental or surprising, like the burglary of a jewelry store on the same date two years in a row, it’s not ironic. But if the burglars stole a diamond necklace with a homing device that led the police to them, that’s ironic.

Cracked gave an amusing take on what irony is and mostly what it isn’t, while The Oatmeal provided an illustrated guide to The Three Most Common Uses of Irony.

Affect versus effect

Affect and effect are two more words that are often used incorrectly. Grammar Girl gave an excellent explanation of the difference, in short, affect is usually used as a verb (a way to remember it is that the a in affect stands for action), while effect is more often used as a noun meaning “result or outcome.” Affect is what you do; effect is what you get.  But just to make it even more confusing, there are some more obscure meanings of the words too.

Do you find me bemusing?

Bemused means “bewildered or confused.” However, according to the New York Times, “the similarity in sound to ‘amused’ leads many writers to merge the meaning of the two words, using ‘bemused’ to suggest a sort of detached amusement,” while Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe discussed the word’s misuse possibly leading to an evolving meaning, and Grammarphobia pointed out that “when ‘amused’ first appeared in the 1600s, it meant to be in a muse—that is, absorbed, preoccupied, or distracted (not all that different from ‘bemused’).”

A literally misused word

People have lots to say about the misuse of literally, so prevalent that the American Heritage definition includes the usage problem, “Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.” Jesse Sheidlower at Slate called it “the word we love to hate” (that includes at least one Wordnik); Stan Carey provided a thorough and amusing post about it; Language Log gave a historical citation of its use and misuse; and most recently, Christopher Muther at the Boston Globe wrote about how it may be the (cough) literally most misused word in the English language. And let’s not forget the funny (literally!) takes from xkcd and The Oatmeal.

And the rest

But wait, there’s more! Lie versus lay from Geoff Pullum and Grammar Girl. Also from Grammar Girl further versus farther and good versus well. Each other versus one another from Motivated Grammar. Errant versus arrant and ferment versus foment from Daily Writing Tips. Scots versus Scotch from John McIntyre at The Baltimore Sun.

In addition take a look at 8 Words You’re Confusing With Other Words from Cracked, as well as this list of easily confused word pairs from Oxford. From our own Wordnik users, check out Commonly Misused Words; Commonly – And Stupidly – Confused Words; and Words that Will Make Me Hit You If Used Improperly.

If you use these words improperly, we promise not to hit you, at least not literally.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Bilal Kamoon]

Rumor Mill

There’s a great comment by qroqqa on rumoured, which, lest it drift by too quickly, deserves to be highlighted. It starts:

“A highly unusual verb in Present-day English: it has only this one verb form. Although it was historically a full verb with all its parts (‘Come hither Catesby, rumor it abroad, That Anne my Wife is very grieuous sicke.’—Richard III, IV.ii), for most of us today it can only be a past participle.”

Read the rest on rumoured. And thanks, qroqqa, for the insight.

Shelby Lynne, Grammarian

From a New York Times Magazine story on torch singer Shelby Lynne:

“Do you know the difference between the words ‘bringing’ and ‘taking’?” she practically whispered into my sleeve, as if not to embarrass me. “Because you just used one of them incorrectly.” I do know the difference, and though I couldn’t remember what I said, I agreed with her anyway, dizzied by the sudden altitude of the conversation. Lynne then proceeded to conduct a sobering mini-symposium on grammar: subjective and objective cases; “begging” versus “raising” the question; parts of speech. “It’s all about using the proper pronouns,” she asserted with the calm authority of a linguistics maven promoting her latest book on NPR.

Give That Woman a Crappaccino!*

My pal Theo pointed me to this WSJ Law Blog piece on Sharon Nichols, founder of the “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar” Facebook group. The group’s stated mission is to document bad grammar, and to date almost 5,000 photos have been uploaded for that purpose. One example: a rather large tattoo claiming “You Bleed Just To Know Your Alive.”

Nichols, a student at Alabama Law, was also covered last week in The New York Times Fashion & Style section, which I found a bit odd–does good grammar ever go out of style?

* See crappuccino. And don’t forget your unlimited edition crappuccino mugs.

Spelling and Grammar

Hey grammar nazis, this one’s for you.

Back in March I linked to Ficlets. I’ve been a steady user of the site since then, and I’ve published 66 short stories there so far.

When I first found Ficlets, I enjoyed a fun literary culture similar to the one here on Wordie. The other users were intelligent, thoughtful authors; the atmosphere was encouraging and clearly valued good writing. A good number of the contributors were published authors in the real world of considerable fame, and it was fun to rub shoulders with them.

In two months, that has changed dramatically. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but it seems the site has been overrun with children. Generally I’m pretty laid-back about bad writing and will just overlook it, but it’s gotten to the point where nearly every Ficlet published reads more like a text message than a literary work.

In the good old days (ha ha) the serious writers would rank garbage as garbage: one star out of five. The hope was that people would get the message and step it up. Unfortunately they didn’t, and they now outnumber the rest of us. To add insult to injury, the kids consistently rank the worst stories with the full five stars so the entire ranking system is useless. Most of the good writers have apparently fled in terror by now.

There’s an underlying attitude here, I think. It’s apathy toward all things grammar, or more. Sometimes I detect outright contempt for it. It’s never capitalizing anything. It’s never breaking text into paragraphs. It goes beyond not knowing how to spell; it’s not _caring_ how to spell. It’s waiving the single- or (already extreme) double-exclamation points in favor of eight or ten or fifteen of them.

I don’t intend to use Errata as a soapbox for my frustrated rants — though it’s probably too late now — but I’d like to hear your thoughts. I’m concerned that SMS and “IM-speak” is bastardizing communication amongst the youngest generation. Is it really that important in the big picture? Are we dealing with lasting illiteracy or a short-term fad? What does a disregard for even the simplest writing conventions mean for the future in, say, thirty years?

I’ve become a grumpy old man. Get off my lawn.

(originally posted on the old errata by uselessness)