Most Common Misused Words & Phrases


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A Harvard linguist, Steven Pinker, just came out with a new book called ‘The Sense of Style’. It’s kind of like the modern version of ‘The Elements of Style’. If you haven’t heard of the Elements of Style, I suggest you go out and get it right away and add it to your reference library. The Sense of Style looks into the most common myths and misuses of phrases and words. It starts off in our early years when we’re trying to learn to write and learn the rules of grammar at the same time. To keep us focused, it seems teachers tend to ingrain a combination of white lies and formal habits. Business Insider came out with a list of of the most common misused words & phrases from the book. I highly recommend getting the book. To get you started, I highlight 10 of my favorites (translation: the ones I always get wrong!), including a video trailer for his book, and a 1 hour speech he gave at Google last year. This should give you more than enough information on looking further into his works.

Scroll down to watch the book trailer and the speech at Google

10 common misused words and phrases

Adverse means detrimental and does not mean averse or disinclined.

Correct: There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”

Begs the question means assumes what it should be proving and does not mean raises the question.

Correct: When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting ‘German quality,’ but that just begs the question.”

Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.

Correct: His sales pitch was not credible. The con man took advantage of credulous people.

Dichotomy means two mutually exclusive alternatives and does not mean difference or discrepancy.

Correct: There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers.There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.

Ironic means uncannily incongruent and does not mean inconvenient or unfortunate.

Correct: It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.”It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.

Literally means in actual fact and does not mean figuratively.

Correct: I didn’t mean for you to literally run over here. / I’d rather die than listen to another one of his lectures — figuratively speaking, of course!

Parameter means a variable and does not mean a boundary condition, a limit.

Correct: The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates.We need to work within budgetary limits.

Practicable means easily put into practice and does not mean practical.

Correct: His French was practicable in his job, which required frequent trips to Paris.Learning French before taking the job was a practical decision.

Protagonist means active character and does not mean proponent.

Correct: Vito Corleone was the protagonist in ‘The Godfather.’ ” He is a proponent of solar energy.

Tortuous means twisting and does not mean torturous.

Correct: The road through the forest was tortuous. Watching their terrible acting for two hours was a torturous experience.

Read more:

Book trailer for Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Speech on Sense of Style At Google

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