The 20 Most Abused Words in the English Language

A Harvard linguist offers a monster list of commonly misused words.

By Jessica Stillman Contributor,


Some languages, like French, have an official body that decides how words can and cannot be used. English, as a flexible, global language, has no such designated referee. Therefore, there is no definitive answer to whether you’re using a word “correctly.” It’s all a matter of taste and context. But there are opinions. And some count more than others.

Steven Pinker is probably as good an expert to ask as anyone. Helpfully, the renowned Harvard linguist and best-selling author recently wrote a book, entitled The, that aims to help readers improve their use of the English language.

If you’re in the market for an update to good, old Strunk and White, it’s probably a good buy. But if you just want to spot check that you’ve not been making embarrassing language mistakes for years, a monster list of 58 commonly misused phrases covered in the book that recently appeared in the UK’s Independent newspaper is probably a good place to start. Here are some highlights:

  1. Adversemeans “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”
  2. Appraisemeans to “ascertain the value of.” It does not mean to “apprise” or to “inform.” Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
  3. Beg the questionmeans that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise 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.”
  4. Bemusedmeans “bewildered.” It does not mean “amused.” Correct: “The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused.” / “The silly comedy amused me.”
  5. Clichéis a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”

Read more here.

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