38 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make

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English vocabulary is full of pitfalls that you might not be aware of. Don't let them trip you up.

1. INVARIABLY

If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.

2. COMPRISE/COMPOSE

A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.

3. FREE REIN

The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the g relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.

4. JUST DESERTS

There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.

5. TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS

Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”

6. EFFECT/AFFECT

When you want to talk about the influence of one thing on another, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Weather affects crop yields. Weather has an effect on crop yields. Basically, if you can put a the or an in front of it, use effect.

7. EXCEPT/ACCEPT

People rarely use accept when they mean except, but often put except where they shouldn’t. To accept something is to receive, admit, or take on. To except is to exclude or leave out—“I’ll take all the flavors except orange.” The x in except is a good clue to whether you’ve got it right. Are you xing something out with the word? No? Then consider changing it.

8. DISCREET/DISCRETE

Discreet means hush-hush or private. Discrete means separate, divided, or distinct. In discreet, the two Es are huddled together, telling secrets. In discrete, they are separated and distinguished from each other by the intervening t.

9. I.E./E.G.

When you add information to a sentence with parentheses, you’re more likely to need e.g., which means “for example,” than i.e., which means “in other words” or “which is to say ...” An easy way to remember them is that e.g. is eg-zample and i.e. is “in effect.”

10. CITE/SITE

People didn’t have as much trouble with these two before websites came along and everyone started talking about sites a lot more than they used to. A site is a location or place. Cite, on the other hand, is a verb meaning to quote or reference something else. You can cite a website, but not the other way around. If you’re using site as a verb, it’s probably wrong.

11. DISINTERESTED/UNINTERESTED

People sometimes use disinterested when they really mean uninterested. To be uninterested is to be bored or indifferent to something; this is the sense most everyday matters call for. Disinterested means impartial or having no personal stake in the matter. You want a judge or referee to be disinterested, but not necessarily uninterested. 

12. FLOUT/FLAUNT

Are you talking about showing off? Then you don’t mean flout, you mean flaunt. To flout is to ignore the rules. You can think of flaunt as the longer showier one, with that extra letter it goes around flaunting. You can flout a law, agreement, or convention, but you can flaunt almost anything.

13. PHASE/FAZE

Phase is the more common word and usually the right choice, except in those situations where it means “to bother.” If something doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t faze you. Faze is almost always used after a negative, so be on alert if there is an isn’t/wasn’t/doesn’t nearby. 

14. LOATH/LOATHE

Loath is reluctant or unwilling, while to loathe is to hate. You are loath to do the things you loathe, which makes it confusing, but you can keep them clear by noting whether the word has a "to be" verb on one side and a to on the other (he is loath to, I would be loath to), in which case loath is correct, or it can be substituted by hate (I loathe mosquitoes), in which case you need the e on the end.

15. WAVE/WAIVE

The word wave is far more frequent than waive and has a more concrete meaning of undulating motion. It’s often used for waive, "to give something up," perhaps because it fits well with the image of someone waving something away. But when you waive your rights, or salary, or contract terms, you surrender them. You can think of the extra i in waive as a little surrender flag in the middle of the word.

16. INTENSIVE PURPOSES

Intensive is a word that means strong or extreme, but that’s not what’s called for in this phrase.  To say “practically speaking” or “in all important ways” the phrase you want is “for all intents and purposes.”

17. GAUNTLET/GAMUT

Run the gauntlet and run the gamut are both correct, but mean different things. Running the gauntlet was an old type of punishment where a person was struck and beaten while running between two rows of people. A gamut is a range or spectrum. When something runs the gamut, it covers the whole range of possibilities.

18. PEEK/PEAK

This pair causes the most trouble in the phrase sneak peek where the spelling from sneak bleeds over to peek, causing it to switch meaning from "a quick look" to "a high point." If you imagine the two Es as a pair of eyes, it can help you remember to use peek for the looking sense.

19. FORTUITOUS

Fortuitous means by chance or accident. Because of its similarity to fortunate, it is commonly used to refer to a lucky accident, but it need not be. Having lightning strike your house and burn it down is not a lucky event, but according to your insurance company it will be covered because it is fortuitous, or unforeseen.

20. REFUTE

To refute a claim or an argument doesn’t just mean to offer counterclaims and opposing arguments. That would be to respond or rebut. To refute is to prove that a claim is false. If you refute, the disagreement should be over because you’ve won. If someone accuses you of not having paid for something, you refute the accusation by producing the receipt.

21. INSURE/ENSURE

These words are easy to confuse not only because they sound alike, but because they both have to do with guarantees. To ensure is to make sure something does or doesn’t happen. To insure is to use a more specific type of guarantee: an insurance policy.

22. DISPERSE/DISBURSE

Disperse is more common and has a wider range of meaning than disburse. To disperse is to scatter, separate, or sprinkle around. To disburse is only to give out money.

23. FLAK/FLACK

Not many words in English end with ak, but flak does because it’s a shortening of a German word: fliegerabwehrkanone (anti-aircraft gun). Flak is artillery fire, and by metaphorical extension, criticism. The less common flack is for a publicist or someone who tries to drum up attention for a person or product.

24. ALL RIGHT/ALRIGHT

Though alright spelled as one word is beginning to be accepted by a few style guides, it is still considered an error by most. Write it as two words.

25. BATED/BAITED

The bated in the expression bated breath is related to abated. The breath is reduced, or almost held, in anticipation. It is not baited like a fish hook.

26. ILLUSION/ALLUSION

Illusion is the more common word and usually the one you want. An illusion is a false impression, something that seems real, but isn’t. Allusion is mostly used in literary contexts. It is a hint at something else, or a pointer to other work, such as a character name that refers back to a Shakespeare play.

27. FLOUNDER/FOUNDER

To flounder is to flop around clumsily, like a fish on land. It can be used metaphorically for inconsistent or unproductive behavior. That’s why it’s easy to confuse with founder, which means to sink or fail. If a business is floundering, there’s still a chance to turn things around, but if it’s foundering, it’s best to cut your losses.

28. HEAR, HEAR/HERE, HERE

When you want to give enthusiastic approval, the correct expression is “Hear, hear!” It came from the sense of hear him out! or hear this! and not from a sense having to do with here, the present location. Here, here! is an answer to “Where should I put this cupcake?”

29. AMUSED/BEMUSED

It’s better to be amused than bemused. Amused means entertained, while bemused means puzzled or confused. It’s the difference between a smile and a head scratch.

30. HEARTY/HARDY

Hearty is for things that are warm and nourishing, like a robust welcome or an abundant feast. They have heart. Hardy is for things that are tough and durable, that can stand up to the elements and survive. They are hard.

31. DEEP-SEATED/DEEP-SEEDED

Whether you're talking about fears, habits, or emotions, the correct term is deep-seated. Talk of depth and rootedness brings the idea of planting to mind, but seeds don’t enter into this expression.

32. COMPLIMENT/COMPLEMENT

A compliment is a kind or flattering comment. Complement means to go together well. Your shoes may complement your dress, but if I remark on how sharp you look I am giving you a compliment.

33. HOARD/HORDE

To hoard is to collect and keep things in a secure or hidden place, and hoard itself keeps its stash of vowels all tucked away inside the word. A horde is a big crowd. Its vowels are scattered over the word, like a horde of tourists on a sidewalk.

34. WHO’S/WHOSE

If you can substitute in “who is” or “who has,” then the one you want is who’s, otherwise it’s whose.

35. PERPETRATE/PERPETUATE

They only differ by one letter, but perpetuate gets a whole extra syllable. That works well, because perpetuate means to keep something going (to make it perpetual) while perpetrate is to commit a single act, usually a crime.

36. PORE OVER/POUR OVER

When you study a document carefully, you pore over it (almost as if you are inspecting its tiny pores). If you were to pour something over it, like juice or coffee, that would make it much harder to read.

37. CONSCIENCE/CONSCIOUS

Conscience is a noun, and conscious is an adjective. A conscience can be cleared, or keep you awake at night, or tell you what decision to make. Conscious is a description of a state. If you’re conscious you're awake and aware.

38. ANGST/ENNUI/WELTSCHMERZ

Here you go.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

40 Dandy D-Words To Deepen Your Vocabulary

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iStock/gazanfer gungor

It’s thought that the earliest ancestor of our humble letter D was an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing a door, which is where D get its hollowed-out shape from. Over time, that hieroglyph became a Phoenician letter, dalet, which then became the Greek letter delta, and finally the Roman letter D, which arrived in England (along with most of the rest of the modern alphabet) from continental Europe more than 1500 years ago.

Before then, English was written using a runic writing system called futhorc, a number of the letters of which—like thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ)—survived into the Old English period before dying out later. The Old English letter eth(Ð ð), however, effectively went the other way: it was invented in Britain (or perhaps Ireland) after the introduction of the Latin alphabet to England, and is actually a derivative of the Roman letter D. Although it too eventually fell out of use, it still survives in modern-day Icelandic.

Nowadays, D is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, accounting for just over 4 percent of a standard page of English text (or one out of every 25 letters), and roughly 2.5 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 delicious D words listed here…

1. DAB-DUMP

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pool of water left on the beach after the tide retreats.

2. DABERLICK

Daberlick or dabberlack is an old dialect name for long, straggly seaweed. Figuratively, it can be used as a nickname for greasy, lank hair, or for a tall, gangly person.

3. DABSTER

An astute or especially skilled worker.

4. DAFFLED

If you’re daffled, then you’re bewildered or disorientated by a sensory overload.

5. DANDIE-CLAW

A dandie-claw is an easily completed task or, when used in the phrase, “to give it the dandie-claw,” it essentially means “that won’t last long,” or “that won’t take long to finish off.” No one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, but it’s possible that a dandy or dandie-claw was originally a small brush used to groom horses, which at some point in time might have become synonymous with a brief or undemanding chore.

6. DANDLE

To bounce a baby on your knee is to dandle it.

7. DANG-SWANG

To do something dang-swang is to do it vigorously, or with great energy or enthusiasm.

8. DANGLEMENT

An 18th century word either for a finger, or for a dangling decoration, or trim on a garment. A danglet—literally a “little dangle”—is an icicle.

9. DAPPERPYE

An old adjective meaning “variegated” or “multi-colored.”

10. DAPPERWIT

A quick-witted, lively young man.

11. DARING-HARDY

A Shakespearean invention meaning “recklessly bold,” or “foolhardy.”

12. DAWK

A thick fog or mist.

13. DAYLIGAUN

An old Scots word for twilight, dayligaun literally means “daylight-going.”

14. DEAD-HORSE

As a metaphor for something that has ceased to be useful, the term dead horse is today more often than not used in the phrase “flogging a dead horse,” meaning “to fruitlessly continue with something all interest has been lost in.” Before then, however, dead-horse was a 17th-century term for work for which you’d been paid in full in advance—and so to work the dead-horse or for a dead horse meant “to busy yourself in work that at the end of which you won’t be paid.” A dead-man, incidentally, is an old English nickname for an empty liquor bottle, so being down among the dead-men meant “passed out drunk on the floor” in 18th-century English.

15. DEAD-NIP

18th-century slang for a failed idea.

16. DEAMBULATE

To walk about, or to stray away from home.

17. DECIDOPHOBIA

If you’re decidophobic, then you hate making decisions. Other D phobias include dendrophobia (trees), dromophobia (running, or crossing roads), didaskaleinophobia (school), dipsophobia (alcohol), and doraphobia (animal furs).

18. DEDOLEATE

A 17th-century word meaning “to cease to be unhappy.”

19. DEJERATE

To swear a solemn oath. Someone who does precisely that is a dejerator.

20. DEONERATE

To unpack cargo or to remove someone’s burden is to deonerate them. To depauperate them is to impoverish them, while to depulse them would be to drive them off.

21. DEPECULATE

Peculation is an old 17th-century legal term for embezzlement—in particular, the embezzlement of funds belonging to a country or head of state. To peculate or depeculate, ultimately, is an old-fashioned word meaning “to steal by peculation,” which was typically used to refer to public officials pilfering state funds for their own personal use.

22. DEPEDITATE

In medical terminology, a depeditation is the amputation of a foot. Thankfully, the relative verb depeditate can simply be used to mean “to be deprived of the use of your feet”—worth remembering next time you go deambulating in a new pair of shoes.

23. DEPROELIATION

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to engage violently in war,” deproeliation is just a 17th-century word for a battle.

24. DIABLERIE

The perfect word for Dr. Faustus: diablerie is work or business done with, or for, the Devil. Figuratively, it can mean recklessness or audaciousness, or else any underhand, shady dealing.

25. DIABLOTIN

Borrowed into English from French in the 1800s, a diablotin is a tiny devil or imp. It’s also, because of its unusual appearance, a nickname for the oilbird.

26. DIAL-PLATE

An 18th century nickname for a person’s face (derived from the dial or “face” of a clock).

27. DILLYALL

An old English dialect word for anything owned because it looks nice, not because it’s useful or functional.

28. DILORICATE

To diloricate something is to rip or tear it. It derives from a Latin word, lorica, for a Roman soldier’s leather cuirass or breastplate—and so might originally have referred to injuries suffered in battle that were bad enough to puncture armor.

29. DIMBER

Dimber was a 17th-century word meaning “pretty” or “smart,” while a dimber-damber was the leader or “face” of a gang of rogues or vagabonds.

30. DISCALCEATE

To discalceate is to remove your shoes. Worth remembering once you’ve deambulated and depeditated.

31. DO-NO-BETTER

The slightly less complimentary Edwardian equivalent of bae—a do-no-better or do-nae-better was “a sweetheart whom one has to be content with, for want of a better.”

32. DOATY

When your head nods up and down while you’re trying to stay awake? That’s doatying.

33. DOCH-AN-DORRIS

A doch-an-dorris or deochandorus is a “stirrup-cup”—a drink or toast made with, or in honor of, someone about to leave. It derives from an old 17th-century Scots Gaelic phrase, deoch an doruis, that literally means “door-drink.”

34. DOCK-WALLOPER

Originally a nickname for someone who hangs around dockyards looking for work, dock-walloper is an old 19th-century American slang word for a loafer or idler.

35. DOLLYMAWKIN

A frivolous, scatterbrained young woman.

36. DOODLE-SHOP

An old dialect nickname for a sweetshop.

37. DRAGGLETAIL

In 18th-century English, an untidily or slatternly dressed woman. Literally, a woman who has let the tails of her dress drag through the rain or mud.

38. DULCILOQUY

A soft or sweet manner of speaking. Likewise, if you’re dulciloquent, then you have a pleasant voice.

39. DUTCH CONCERT

The incomprehensibleness of Dutch to speakers of English is the origin of double Dutch, meaning “gibberish” or “nonsense,” and Dutch concert, an old nickname for an incongruous or cacophonous mishmash of noises or sounds.

40. DWINE

To dwindle or pine away.

This article originally ran in 2016.

To Apostrophe or Not to Apostrophe: How to Pluralize Your Last Name

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iStock.com/katerinasergeevna

Let's suppose your last name is Jones, and you and your family want to send out holiday greeting cards or wedding invitations. How would you make your last name plural—Jones'? Jones's? Or Joneses?

Although it may seem complicated at first, the rules of pluralizing last names are actually pretty simple, as Slate has pointed out. Unless you want to make your last name possessive, there aren't any circumstances where you would need to add an apostrophe.

The rule goes like this: If your name ends in s, x, z, ch, or sh, add -es to the end. Walsh becomes Walshes, and Malkovich becomes Malkoviches. For all other endings, simply add -s to the end (as in Smiths, Whites, Johnsons, etc).

Of course, things get a little trickier when you want to make a last name plural and possessive. "Errors involving plural proper names are so common that I almost never see them written correctly," June Casagrande writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Let's say you want to notify friends and family that a party will be held at the Jones household. You could take the easy way out and write just that, or you could opt for, "The party will be held at the Joneses' house." Simply tack an apostrophe onto the end of a plural name to make it possessive. Plural first, then possessive.

The LA Times provided a few other examples of plural possessives:

"Unlike singular possessives, which take an apostrophe followed by an S, plural possessives take an apostrophe alone. So if you're going to the home of the Smiths, you're going to the Smiths' house. If you're going to visit the Williamses, that would be at the Williamses' house. Mr. and Mrs. Mendez, known collectively as the Mendezes, live in the Mendezes' house. And Mr. and Mrs. Berry, whom we call the Berrys, live in the Berrys' house."

On the other hand, if Mr. Jones lived alone and was having a party at his place, you would write "Mr. Jones' house" or "Mr. Jones's house." Both are acceptable—it's merely a difference of style and personal preference. Names that end in s are the exception to the singular possessive rule, though. You'd normally just add 's to make a singular name possessive, such as Mr. Berry's house or Mrs. Mendez's house.

Now that you know exactly when and where to add an apostrophe, your holiday greetings will not only be jolly but also grammatically correct.

[h/t Slate]

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