There are few things more embarrassing than realizing you have been using a word or phrase incorrectly and no one ever told you. This isn’t just because we take pride in being intelligent. Errors like these, repeated over time, lessen our credibility. These mistakes can even cause us to miss out on a job or other opportunity. This list catalogs some of the most commonly misused words and phrases and describes the correct usages—as well as where you might have some wiggle room to interpret your own way.
Commonly Misused Words in English
Are vs Our
- Are is a verb that describes the state of something in the present. Things are
- Our is a pronoun, meaning it stands in for a group of people in a sentence. John and I love to eat pizza. Our favorite place is around the corner.
Effect vs Affect
- Effect is a noun that means the result of a change. What will the effect of this merger be?
- Affect is a verb that describes a change in progress. The merger will affect every department.
Lay vs Lie vs Laid
- Lay is a verb that describes an object being placed somewhere. I lay the book down on the table.
- The past tense of this is I laid the book down on the table.
- Lie is a verb that describes resting or reclining. I am going to lie
- Confusingly, the past tense of this is lay. I lay down for a few hours this morning.
Ensure vs Insure
- Ensure is a verb that means you are going to guarantee something. I ensure you will get the results you want.
- Insure is a verb specifically related to insurance. She decided to insure her jewelry for $100,000.
Then vs Than
- Then is a word that can be many parts of speech but is usually an adjective or adverb. Almost all its uses have to do with time or the order of events. I will be ready by Let’s go to dinner, then the show. If the client calls, then I might be late to the meeting. The decision was made by then president Adam Jones.
- Than is a conjunction used to compare two things. I am taller than Their store is busier than ours. They have more than I have. I am less than pleased.
Which vs That
- Which is used when the information that follows it isn’t essential to the understanding of the sentence. The car, which seemed expensive, was attractive to Tony. (In this case, the car is attractive to Tony whether it is expensive or not.)
- That is used when the information that follows is essential to the understanding of the sentence. The car that seemed expensive was attractive to Tony. (In this case, it is the fact that the car is expensive that makes it attractive among other options.)
Words That Don’t Actually Exist
In addition to confused words like the ones above, there are some words we might use that are rarely or never correct.
- This mistake is usually made when someone is trying to say there is a lot of something. You would never use “alittle” as one word trying to describe a little of something. In the same way, a lot is two words.
- If you are trying to talk about an allotment, to allot someone a portion requires two “L’s.”
- Alot is never correct.
- This isn’t exactly an imaginary word since you can find it in some dictionaries from the 1800s. But today, it’s generally regarded as incorrect.
- Its literal meaning is “conceivable within imagination.” An aunt or uncle could supposably tell children something their parents don’t want them to learn.
- But when most people make this mistake, they are trying to say supposedly, which means “what people accept to be true, or what is reported.” She supposedly completed the project, but I don’t know.
- This word is believed to have been created as a slang mashup of “irrespective” and “regardless.”
- Regardless means the same thing, but avoids the double negative created by “ir-“and “-less” that causes this word to be considered incorrect.
- People often use this word to try to describe something that can’t catch on fire. However, the word for that is
- Flammable is the word for something that can catch on fire. Inflammable means the same thing as flammable but causes unnecessary confusion. This is because we associate the prefix “in-“ with something being the opposite of what follows, like inflexible or But in this case, that rule does not apply. Instead, you might be saying the opposite of what you intend.
- According to Merriam-Webster, this mess arose because of a Latin translation error.
- This word is a mistaken attempt to say unequivocally, which means “plainly and without doubt.” I can tell you unequivocally that this product will be a success.
- Unequivocably is not a word and is never grammatically correct. Since it is a piece of slang, you can still play it in Scrabble.
- Like irregardless and inflammable, this is a case of adding a prefix to a word that is already doing a fine job on its own. To thaw something already means to unfreeze it. Can you thaw the steaks for dinner? The spring thaw is coming soon.
- If you think about the prefix “un-“meaning the opposite, like unfriendly, to unthaw something would actually mean to freeze it again.
Commonly Misused Phrases in English
- When people use this phrase, they mean to say deep-seated, which means established at a profound level. I have a deep-seated fear of heights.
- Merriam-Webster does a great job of explaining how our use of “seed” in athletic tournaments has led to this confusion growing worse over time.
Piece of mind
- If you are trying to ease someone’s fears, you are offering them peace of mind.
- The idea of giving someone a piece of our mind opens the door to confusion between these two.
- Remember that peace of mind is a positive offering, while a piece of your mind usually is not.
For all intensive purposes
- This confusion is a case of not hearing the actual phrase correctly. For all intents and purposes is a phrase from law that has become common use. It means “in every practical sense.” For all intents and purposes, those two are dating, but they just won’t admit it. I am the dog’s owner for all intents and purposes, because I feed it and take care of it every day.
- Often this continues to be misinterpreted by those making the mistake because we think of intensive as being “deep” or “comprehensive,” like “an intensive” This is understandable, but still incorrect.
- In this case, it’s important to remember that peek means “look,” while peak means “the top of a mountain.
- If you got an advance look at the top of a mountain, you would get a sneak peek at the
By in large
- Like “for all intensive purposes,” this error is commonly caused by mishearing the phrase in speech and applying what the brain interprets in our writing.
- By and large means considering all the aspects of a situation together. By and large, what we need is someone who can answer these questions.
- Some people hear and use by an large, which is also incorrect.
This list is by no means comprehensive, and summaries like these don’t always drive home the nuances of using these words and phrases correctly. If you ever find yourself questioning your usage at the moment, we recommend turning to Google. A quick search for the phrase or word you are questioning will bring a lot of resources to your fingertips, including quizzes and worksheets to practice correct usage. And at the end of the day remember—everyone makes mistakes!