58 commonly misused words and phrases

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.


  1. Chiroptera says

    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.

    There comes a point in time when a word or phrase that is initially used incorrectly becomes to commonly used in a certain sense that it becomes the correct way (or a correct way) to use it; it is part of how languages evolve.

    I consider it now correct to use “I could care less” to mean that one doesn’t actually care very much; I can see how some people would disagree with me and insist that it is not correct, at least at the current time. In my case, what probably helps in accepting it is that I wouldn’t use neither that phrase or the more correct version iin formal speaking or formal language to begin with.

    I suspect that in a hundred years, “I could care less” will be taught to non-native learners of the English language as an idiom: a commonly used phrase that has a non-intuitive meaning.

    On the other hand, I still won’t accept that it is correct to use “ad hominem” when someone merely insults someone else. I also don’t accept that an internet troll is anyone who is merely tiresome and annoying; to me there has to the conscious intent to derail the conversation or to start a flame war. So I do have my pet “word peeves” as well.

  2. says

    Other than meretricious, I’ve seen them all. Several of them have endings or suffixes similar to other common words which should indicate their meanings.

    credible ~ edible
    enervate ~ alleviate
    fulsome, noisome ~ loathsome, winsome
    meritorious ~ notorious

    The list includes several plurals misused as singular, but misses a common one most people get wrong: die is singular, dice are plural. Latin and Greek plurals aren’t that hard to master (e.g. stadia, fungi).


    If people don’t know how to pronounce loanwords, they should look them up or not use them. It’s voila and à la, not “walla” and “allah”. Like nonplussed, they are of French origin, not Arabic. (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Qué será, será….) No one was ever embarrassed by using simpler words correctly, but they were by getting words wrong.

    One that I really find galling is the increasing frequency of mispronounced heteronyms by Americans I meet. I’m hearing more and more speakers assuming there is only one way to pronounce certain words -- subject, record, perfect, rebel, protest, project, resume. This cannot be solely due to a lack of reading. It requires never hearing the words audibly or being taught incorrectly.

    Regarding flaunt, I’ve met people who don’t believe flute players are flautists and fluters are woodworkers, even after showing them a dictionary. As for cliche, I’ve heard as many screw up clique (rhymes with meek), cachet (rhymes with sashay), say “E-light” for elite. But I cannot fathom why Americans insist on incorrectly saying lever and route with short vowels. A rout is a defeat, a route is a way forward.

    Other hackle-raising errors I’ve seen include “all seriously” instead of in all seriousness, “vibrate” when they mean vibrant, “uncurious” for incurious and “unexplained” for unexplainable and inexplicable. And if someone can’t figure out what flounder means, ask them what a flounder fish does if you lay it on the ground.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I remember a sports reporter, many years ago, asking David Beckham if he was perhaps a bit volatile. Beckham replied that, yes, he could play in several positions.

  4. johnson catman says

    re: leftover1under@5

    People often pronounce words the way they heard them when growing up. I have always pronounced lever and route with short vowels, and I wonder why people would use a long vowel for them. How do you pronounce router? I pronounce it just like i pronounce route, with a short vowel. I cannot recall anyone ever using a long vowel for router (pronouncing it as rooter).

    Recently, Ophelia at B&W referenced a survey from the NYT that asked how you pronounce certain words and what you called certain things. It then proposed likely places where you live (or lived) based on your answers. (This was a US poll, so I do not think they had any predictions for outside the US.) I found it very interesting, and it pegged me pretty well. My wife, who had moved around a lot as a child, was projected to come from two areas, which happened to be the two places where her parents were from.

    I must admit that I have been irritated when I hear someone use “walla”, being clueless as to what the term actually is. And most of the time, I am a pretty good speller, so bad spelling really gets to me. But I have more important things to worry about usually.

    I put a blank line between my paragraphs, but in the preview, they have been removed. Apologies if they do not appear, thereby making the reading look more like a wall of text.

  5. File Thirteen says

    Everyone has their own bugbears. Pronunciation is especially subjective. Personally I hate hearing “mobile” pronounced “mobill”. Say aloud: bill, bile, mo-bill, mo-bile. Got it? Ok, I know, I’m pushing against the wind here.

    Another is “orientated”. Ugh. You meant oriented. Orient, orienting, oriented, orientation.

    But reading through the list, I did discover that “begs the question” means something different to what I always thought it did. You live and learn.

    However I thought limit was an accepted alternative meaning of parameter. The dictionaries seem to agree; am I wrong?

  6. Mano Singham says

    Although M-W defines parameter as “a rule or limit that controls what something is or how something should be done”, the limit there is not in the sense of a boundary, which is what perimeter is.

  7. says

    #7 -- A router (pronounced “out”) creates a groove, which is a synonym for rout. “Rout” comes from Latin “ruptus” meaning “break” (see also “rupture”). Do you say “routine” the same way you say “out”? Routine and route are derived from the same French word “route”, meaning “way” or “road”. As for lever, in England and Canada (my ancestry is both) it rhymes with fever, not sever.

    I looked at the NY Times “quiz” (it’s more of a survey) and my word usage is shown as a thin red strip along the Canada-US border from Idaho to Minnesota, though I’m surprised it didn’t extend to Washington state. I’m from British Columbia, never been east of Edmonton. On some of the questions I had to choose a compromise answer because my usual choice of word wasn’t there (e.g. “all of you” or “everyone” instead if “you”).

    This could easily go on to the issue of spelling and how Americans create ambiguity when clarity is possible (e.g. using “check” and “racket” when they mean cheque and racquet). And why do Americans spell monologue and fatigue correctly but not dialogue and catalogue?


    Two more I just remembered:

    More and more Americans say “meer” when referring to a mirror. Two consecutive “r” sounds requires speaking clearly, not changing the pronunciation. (See also: “gonna” for “going to”.)

    And many pronounce municipal as “myoo-ni-SI-pul” instead of “myoo-NI-si-pul”. Yet when they say municipality, they switch the stress to the second and fourth syllables….

  8. machintelligence says

    I remember getting hammered for using data as a collective noun some 40 years ago. I said “the data is”… but of course datum is the singular, so I should have said” the data are.” Now that usage is quite common. I guess I was just ahead of my time. (No one would say “the herd are”…)

  9. EigenSprocketUK says

    English is weird. I’m glad it was the first one I learnt. Though I’m embarrassed to have been using enervate and enormity incorrectly all these years. And I’ve never heard stanch, only staunch. My autocorrect doesn’t even recognise stanch.
    Current business buzzword which should die: “meritocracy” -- an environment in which progression is based on ability. Real meaning: progression and promotion goes to those who are privileged with the right qualifications, not necessarily those with the ability to do the job.

  10. johnson catman says

    re: leftover1under@10
    Actually, I was talking about router in the sense of a network device that routes traffic. I pronounce it the same way as the woodworking device. I have never heard anyone in networking refer to it as a “rooter”. 🙂

  11. File Thirteen says

    Re: Mano Singham@9

    Pinker never mentioned a confusion with perimeter. Instead he’s arguing for the rigid mathematical definition of parameter, but I don’t think that’s right. In his article he says:

    Parameter means a variable and does not mean a boundary condition, a limit.

    However I prefer this definition which asserts we can validly use the word parameter in English to refer to the proscribed limits of something, eg. “within the parameters of the standard model”. I think that’s common usage and there’s no confusion with perimeter there.

    Re: EigenSprocketUK@12

    My Chinese friend found English very weird. As he pointed out: “first you chop DOWN the tree, then you chop it UP!!”

  12. File Thirteen says

    (and to clarify, you can’t say “within the perimeter of the standard model”, because perimeter is used when talking about areas, which the standard model isn’t. It’s meaningless to refer to the perimeter of something non-geometrical. That’s why I said there’s no confusion between parameter and perimeter in that example)

  13. Robert, not Bob says

    re: File Thirteen #8
    I grew up saying “mobile” as “mobl”.

    The thing that bothers me is the homenym salad, so you have to read aloud to get the writer’s meaning-and only if you pronounce words the same way. I blame spellcheck and auto-complete.

  14. File Thirteen says

    I just have to mention one more I find particularly grating: people saying momentarily when they mean imminently. And… relax.

  15. says

    johnson catman (#14) --

    I do pronounce it router because it’s a machine that routes data packets, or a logistics company or postal service.

    By the by, a rooter is a pig digging for truffles or a sports fanatic.

  16. Mano Singham says


    In Sri Lanka, we pronounced ‘route’ the same as ‘root’ so router and rooter were also the same.

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