An Ode to Commonly Misused Words and Phrases

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A Soldier’s Dispatch from the Battlefield

Brother and sisters, I come to you with alarming news. In the battle for the soul of the English language, we have experienced a devastating defeat. Despite the heroic and tireless efforts of countless grammarians, I confess that our efforts to preserve the proper meaning of “disinterested” have failed. The sad truth is that those who misuse the word to mean “not interested” have overrun the defenses of those who rightly proclaim the true meaning to be  “unbiased and neutral.” The confusion has spread like a pestilence to all corners, forcing the guardians of our language to include this counterfeit meaning alongside the true one. We are defeated on this score, but we shall not be broken.

In these endeavors we must resist the temptation to lash out at those of our brethren who are unwittingly abetting this degradation of our language by misuse. They know not what they do! Let us rather remind them of true meanings and proper usage so we may all give our fair measure toward the preservation of this most precious of languages, our native English.

Yours in fidelity,

Percival S.  Witherspoon III, Esquire

P.S. I’ve enclosed a helpful list of commonly misused words and expressions to aide in your efforts.

Commonly misused words and phrases

Flaunt: to show off, parade in front of others

Flout: to disregard or show scorn for

You flaunt your wealth by driving a fancy car. You flout convention by doing it naked.

Affect: verb meaning “to influence” or less commonly, “pretend or fake”

Effect: noun meaning “a result”

This medication carries a warning about its possible side effects, including hair loss and dysentery, which may adversely affect your decision to take it.

Accept: a verb meaning “to receive”, “take what’s given,” “believe in,” or “approve of”

Except: used as a preposition, conjunction or verb to mean “apart from” or “not including”

The runner-up accepted defeat gracefully, except for an unfortunate incident afterward involving a flagpole.

Diffuse: an adjective or less commonly a verb, meaning “spread over a wide area”

Defuse: a verb meaningto make a situation less tense” or “render harmless”

In an effort to defuse the tension in the meeting, the manager made an off-color joke. Word of the incident was soon diffuse in the office, earning him a meeting with HR.

Hone: a verb meaning “to sharpen or improve”

Home: in this case, a verb meaning “to converge upon” or “get closer”

The ninja finally homed in on the reason for his unemployment. He needed to hone his nunchuck skills to compete in a changing marketplace.

Discreet: an adjective meaning “ modest, prudent, kept quiet” (showing “discretion”)

Discrete: an adjective used to describe something that is separate or composed of individually distinct entities

Though he tried to be discreet about it, everyone knew he was obsessed with Star Wars. He kept his figurines in discrete boxes and only brought them out on special occasions.

Compliment: an expression of praise or admiration

Complement: something that completed or makes up a whole; well-matched

I complimented the redneck on his impressive mullet. It was the perfect complement to his wife-beater and confederate flag tattoo.

Mute: unspoken or unable to speak; silent

Moot: purely hypothetical or pointless, past relevance

She stared in mute horror at the scene unfolding before her on Black Friday. She thought to tell people that the deals weren’t even that good, but realized the point was probably moot.

Continuous: Never-ending

Continual: Starting and stopping

Because of the continual calls for tech assistance, Eddie had a continuous backlog of real work.

Insure: to procure insurance on something

Ensure: to make sure

Strange but true: In order to ensure her long-term prosperity, Jennifer Lopez reportedly insured her derriere for $1 million dollars.

Regardless: The abomination that is “irregardless” continues unabated. The correct word is “regardless.” Not to be confused with “irrespective,” which has the same meaning and is correct. Regardless of your background, and irrespective of your education, you, too, can be a champion of the English language.

Travesty: Not a synonym for tragedy, despite its frequent misuse as such. A travesty is actually a mockery of something serious. The phrase “travesty of justice” means that something has made a mockery of the legal system. The result of a travesty might be tragic (an innocent person going to jail), but the meaning refers to the flawed court proceedings.

Ironic: Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. Ironic does not mean unfortunate or inconvenient, like rain on one’s wedding day. Rather, it means “poignantly incongruent” or “unexpected in a wryly amusing way.” It is ironic when someone who was hired to stop shoplifters turns out to be stealing himself.

Couldn’t care less: Be careful not to say “could care less” which doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t care less what a One Direction is.

For all intents and purposes: Commonly mistaken for “all intensive purposes” which is wrong. The expression is used to mean “in every practical sense” or “essentially.” For all intents and purposes, the Hamburglar is a warning to those who would steal hamburgers.

Case in point: Often misunderstood as “case and point”, the expression “case in point” refers to an example of something.

Hunger pangs: Though being hungry is often painful, there’s no such thing as “hunger pains.” Use hunger “pangs” next time your stomach rumbles.

Jibe with: Unless you’re a cool talking jazz cat, you don’t “jive with” anything. “Jibe” means to agree with something, to be in accord.

Pique my interest: “Pique” means to provoke or arouse, so we use it for things that spark something, like interest. Be careful not to use a homonym, like “peak” or “peek” which don’t make sense.

One and the same: Used to mean two things that are exactly the same. Commonly misunderstood as “one in the same” which would be a thing inside of itself, I guess? Heavy.