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The 21 Most Misused Words in the English Language

Modern English is an interesting language - it's constantly evolving. Words are altered and definitions are updated accordingly. We can’t all be linguists, but we should know how to use the words we choose correctly.


1. Compelled

What they think it means: To do something voluntarily by choice.

What it actually means: To be forced or obligated to doing something.

To be compelled is to be forced to do something, regardless of whether you actually want to do it or not.

2. Bemused

What they think it means: Amused.

What it actually means: Confused.

While it sounds similar to Amused, its meaning is completely different. It originally comes from the middle-English words Be, which is an intensifier, and Muse, which is to contemplate.

3. Irony

What they think it means: Something that's funny.

What it actually means: Contrary to what you are expecting.

From the Greek word “eirōneia” - meaning “to simulate ignorance”. There are different kinds of irony but they generally are the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite.

4. Redundant

What they think it means: Repetitive.

What it actually means: Unnecessarily excessive.

Not all repetition is redundant. Something becomes redundant only when there's too much of it.

5. Effect

What they think it means: To cause something to change.

What it actually means: An event that causes a change.

If an individual wants to change another’s opinion, the individual will need to affect it somehow. The action taken was the effect that caused the change of opinion.

6. Travesty

What they think it means: A tragedy or something unfortunate.

What it actually means: A mockery or parody.

The death of Robin Williams was a tragedy.When some individuals made jokes about it – it was a travesty.

7. i.e.

What they think it means: For example.

What it actually means: In other words.

From the Latin “Id Est” (meaning: in that), i.e. is used when you want repeat something in a different manner – i.e. to say something again in another way.

8. Plethora

What they think it means: A lot of something.

What it actually means: More than is needed.

From the Greek “plēthōrē”, meaning “Be full”. 10,000 people in a stadium isn't a plethora of people, but put them in a small house and they suddenly become a plethora.

9. Disinterested

What they think it means: Bored.

What it actually means: Neutral.

If you are bored – you are uninterested (it doesn’t interest you). But if you are disinterested – you simply don’t care either way.

10. Obsolete

What they think it means: Old, out of date.

What it actually means: Not produced, used, or needed.

You might think that your old cellphone is obsolete, and you might be right, because that model probably isn't produced anymore. However, cellphones on the whole are still produced, used and needed, so cellphones in themselves are not obsolete. 

A good example of something that is obsolete is a steam engine – they’re so inefficient compared to today’s combustion and electric engines, that no-one produces, uses or needs them.


11. Chronic

What they think it means: Severe.

What it actually means: Over the course of a long time.

A person with chronic pain is not necessarily in severe pain, but has been experiencing the pain for a long time. 

12. Nauseous

What they think it means: To feel ill.

What it actually means: To cause feelings of illness.

If you say that you are nauseous – you’re actually saying that you cause nausea in others. Instead, the word you should be using is nauseated.

13. Peruse

What they think it means: To skim or browse.

What it actually means: To observe in depth.

This word originates from 15th Century English. “Per”, meaning thoroughly, and Use. If you peruse a book, you are reading it with your full concentration, possibly re-reading it several times.

14. Defective

What they think it means: That something is broken or it has missing pieces.

What it actually means: Simply that it’s broken.

Imagine if you were to buy two new smartphones. One cannot be turned on, and the other’s screen is in pieces. The first is not defective, but rather deficient. The latter is indeed defective, as it’s literally broken.

15. Enormity

What they think it means: Huge, enormous.

What it actually means: Profoundly immoral or evil.

From the Latin “enormitas”, meaning ‘deviation from legal or moral rectitude’, enormity can only be used to describe size or quantity in regard to something that is perceived as bad (or worse).

16. Fortuitous

What they think it means: Lucky.

What it actually means: By chance.

A fortuitous event differs from an event of luck by being neutral. If you find winning lottery ticket on the street, that is lucky. If you then slip and fall, losing the ticket, that is fortuitous.

17. Can

What they think it means: What is permissible.

What it actually means: What is possible.

If you were to ask me: “Can I have a drink?”, you’re not asking me if you are allowed to have a drink, but rather, if you are actually capable of drinking. 

18. Literally

What they think it means: Figuratively.

What it actually means: Actually.

What you use “Literally”, you’re saying that something happened in the literal sense of the word and not as a figure of speech. If you were to say “There were literally a million cars on the road” then it means that the number of cars on the road was exactly one million, no more, no less.



19. Total

Total means exactly what people think it means but it is used unnecessarily on a frequent basis. When there is a total of 50 people, the total is 50 whether or not you use the word “total”. You might hear someone say that they were totally surprised. Surprise is not a conditional emotion - You were either surprised, or you were not. The use of total didn’t add anything of value to the sentence. 

20. Conversate

What they think it means: To have a conversation.

What it actually means: Nothing.

It comes from a mix of “Converse” and “Conversation”, but it's simply not a real word and it doesn't have meaning.

21. Irregardless

What they think it means: Without regard.

What it actually means: Nothing.

Like conversate above, irregardless isn’t actually a word. When people say irregardless, they actually mean to say regardless. 

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