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]

3 thoughts on “Commonly Confused Words

  1. One that’s good for a chuckle: principle vs. principal. To see just how common this is, search LinkedIn for people who use “principle” in their job titles. You’ll find thousands of “principle architects” or “principle developers” or “principle engineers.” Are these people all working on foundational axioms?

  2. The list of misused words could have included “penultimate” which is often misused to mean something like “the most exalted in its class”, or “the best in its class”. It means something far humbler.

  3. “Comprise” is so often misused as a synonym for “compose” that I’m surprised when see it used correctly.

    If you’re willing to admit phrases to this conversation, then I humbly offer up “beg the question.” Again, I’m surprised when I see it used correctly.

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