Linguist Stephen Pinker has compiled a list of 58 words and phrases that he claims are commonly misused, frequently because those words are very close in spelling to other words and people confuse them. As someone who writes a lot, I was naturally curious as to how many of those errors I was committing.
The good news is that as far as I can tell, the only one I have misused is ‘fulsome’, where I have incorrectly taken it to mean “full or copious” and missed the negative connotations of it being “unctuous or excessively or insincerely complimentary”.
A word in the list that I have never used is ‘noisome’ and although I knew it existed, I had not seen it enough to hazard a guess as to what it might mean. I was surprised to find that he said it meant ‘smelly’. I would never have guessed that. Merriam Webster however gives an alternative meaning that is less narrow “highly obnoxious or objectionable”.
A word that I see increasingly commonly misused is ‘misnomer’ though it is not on Pinker’s list. It means a name (or label for something) that is wrong or not proper or appropriate, but I often see it being used as meaning mistake or misunderstanding.
One item that people might be surprised to not see on Pinker’s list is “I could care less” that is used when people mean “I couldn’t care less” even though two wordings are contradictory. This is because in his book The Language Instinct, Pinker defends the use of the former as also correct, saying that people are using it in a sarcastic or sardonic way meaning “As if I could care less”. I found his reasoning a bit convoluted and unconvincing but that may explain why it is not on his current list.
Any such list immediately creates controversy between those who say that one should not be overly prescriptive about language use since meanings evolve as usage changes, and those who think that if one is too accommodating of new meanings, then it is hard to use language with any precision. I myself tend to be on the conservative side with language, using words and phrases with the conventional meaning for as long as it is feasible.
David Mitchell, on the other hand, is a hard-core language purist.