What does peruse mean? And inflammable? Most native speakers are shocked to find that what they thought the words meant is actually the opposite of their definitions. Below is a collection of commonly misused words and expressions that you should watch out for. If you see a word that has more definitions than are displayed, it implies that the extra meanings are either universally known or not widely used.
Abbreviation/ Acronym/ Initials
Abbreviations are shortened words or phrases, such as ‘Prof.’ or ‘vocab.’ Acronyms are abbreviated words formed with individual letters or parts of other words. ‘NATO,’ the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and ‘Interpol,’ International Criminal Police Organization, are examples of acronyms. Initials are abbreviated groups of letters that do not form a new word. They are pronounced using their distinct letters, such as ‘UN’ or ‘NBC.’ The main difference between acronyms and initials is that acronyms form new words, while initials do not.
Affect is usually used as a verb meaning to cause a result or produce an effect. ‘It doesn’t affect my appetite anymore when my son shows me the food in his mouth during breakfast.’ Effect is usually used as a noun that means ‘result.’ ‘There are many positive effects of bribery, but it isn’t recommended.’
As a verb, aid means help. ‘The woman was charged with aiding and abetting.’ Similarly, it can also be a noun meaning someone or something that provides assistance. ‘English Aid is a wonderful aid for learning English.’ Aide is a noun used for assistants, especially personal assistants. ‘The nurse aide promptly quit after changing the soiled linens.’
All together/ Altogether
All together suggests members of a group act simultaneously. ‘Let’s protest this tax increase all together!’ Altogether means entirely. ‘I’m altogether too tired to read this nonsense.’
Ambiguous means unclear, especially between two possible meanings. ‘Advertising is often ambiguous, treading a line between acceptable and risqué.’ When you are ambivalent, you are feeling two opposing emotions or attitudes at once or unsure of which course to follow. ‘He’s my best worker, but he’s constantly disruptive and I’m not sure if I should replace him.’
Anticipate/ Expect/ Look forward to
To anticipate is to make preparations or decisions based on an expectation. ‘Anticipating great loss and injury from the disaster, we set up several temporary care units.’ Expect is to think something will happen. ‘I expect to lose another $2,000,000 before the stocks finally turn around.’ Look forward to means you fondly expect something will happen. ‘After a year away from home, I’m looking forward to being with family again.’
ESL note: when speaking or writing, it is polite to use ‘look forward to’ rather than ‘expect’ to show affection. Hence, you would say, ‘I look forward to seeing you next week’ rather than ‘I expect to see you next week.’ Using ‘I expect’ implies it is the other person’s duty.
An artist is a person who creates imaginative art. ‘Whoever painted this was a true artist.’ An artiste is a performer of fine arts such as music or theater. ‘Gliding across the stage, the artiste could feel all eyes upon her.’
Ascent is a noun meaning upward movement. ‘Google’s ascent as a search engine came from its simplicity, accuracy, and ease of use.’ Assent is a verb that means to agree or give permission. ‘Knowing that it would ultimately help his cause, Obama assented to the proposal.’
Beside is a preposition signifying ‘next to.’ ‘There is an odd smell emanating from the person beside me.’ Besides is a preposition meaning ‘in addition to’ or ‘except.’ ‘Besides kryptonite, nothing can stop Superman.’ Besides can also be an adverb meaning ‘furthermore.’ ‘I’m partied out. Besides, I need to get home to my wife.’
Blatant means unpleasantly noisy, as in ‘The sirens were blatant on the fourth of July.’ Blatant is regularly confused to mean flagrant. Telling a blatant lie would be lying about something in a loud voice. Flagrant means clearly bad or offensive. ‘The ref should eject a player from the game for such a flagrant foul.’
These words are often confused not just because they look and sound similar, but because they are related. The city or area that serves as the head of government is called the capital. The building that the legislature meets is called the capitol.
Complement is something that works well in conjunction with another, so you might say ‘Red wine is a nice complement to dinner.’ As a noun, a compliment is a form of praise or display of admiration. For example, ‘This food is delicious. My compliments to the chef.’ You can remember it easily by recalling there’s an i in compliment and I like compliments.
Common knowledge/ Common sense
Information most people know, but have to be taught originally, is common knowledge. The name of the President of the United States is common knowledge. Common sense is something that you should know without being told. It’s common sense to not bring a bikini on an Alaskan cruise.
Consul/ Council/ Counsel/ Console
Consul is a noun meaning diplomat or representative. ‘The American consul was less than popular in Iraq.’ Council is noun referring to a group that meets to advise or govern. The first syllable is stressed. ‘City council meetings were again fruitless this week.’ Counsel is a verb meaning advise. ‘Jill counseled Jack, advising him to wear a helmet when fetching water on steep hills.’ Console is a verb that means to reduce grief. The second syllable is stressed. ‘I tried to console him after spilling coffee on his precious, first edition Harry Potter novel.’ If you cannot be consoled, you are inconsolable.
Convince means to make someone believe something is true. Persuade is to make someone do something with reason. You can’t convince someone to eat chocolate cake when they’re on a diet, but you can convince them that it’s all right. You can persuade them to eat the cake, though.
Decent/ Descent/ Dissent
Decent is an adjective that means satisfactory. It is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable. Descent is a verb meaning fall or go down. Both syllables are stressed. ‘His descent from stardom was sudden and spectacular.’ Dissent is to disagree or offer opposition. ‘If the crowd continues to dissent, hose them down.’ The verb and noun forms are both pronounced with emphasis on the last syllable.
The noun desert is a large, dry and usually sandy environment. ‘The hot desert sand kicked up, preventing us from seeing more than 3 feet away in any direction.’ As a verb, desert is pronounced the same way as dessert, and means to leave someone stranded, alone, or without recourse. ‘Once they had deserted Captain Jack, the pirates made for the lost treasure.’ Dessert is a sweat dish served after a meal. ‘Even after the biggest meal, there’s always room for dessert.’
Memory tip: You enjoy eating more dessert, so it has an extra s, whereas deserts are barren, so they only have one s.
To be discreet is to do something wisely or secretly, as in a discreet romance. Discrete is having distinct properties. ‘Open up a clock and you’ll find many discrete parts working together.’
Memory tip: Crete is a large Greek island, distinct from all others, so recalling that may help you remember discrete.
Disinterested means unbiased. ‘The judge was disinterested in the case and brought forth a just verdict.’ Uninterested means unconcerned, apathetic, or bored. The uninterested judge fell asleep while the plaintiff explained her case.’
Elicit is a verb meaning obtain or extract. ‘Mrs. Dogood elicited the help of her community to run for local office.’ Illicit is an adjective that means unlawful. ‘Bobby Bad sent to jail for carrying illicit drugs in his pocket.’
Memory tip: illicit things have ill effects on society.
Emigrate/ Immigrate/ Migrate
Emigrate is to move from one country to another. ‘As soon as I save up enough money, I’m going to emigrate to the U.S.’ Immigrate means that you are in another country and that you came from another. ‘I immigrated here from Turkey when I was four years old.’ Migrate is to move temporarily to another area or country. ‘Young people typically migrate to the beach during vacation to find prospective mates.’
Eminent means distinguished and high-ranking. ‘Winston Churchill was one of the most eminent figures of the twentieth century.’ Imminent is impending, forth-coming. ‘With a puff of white smoke in St. Peter’s Square, the announcement of a new pope is imminent.’
Enormity is a noun that refers to a great horror, an atrocious act. ‘The way little Charley was scolded, you’d think that eating candy after brushing your teeth was an enormity.’ Enormous is an adjective meaning massive in size. ‘I had such an enormous appetite I felt like I could eat everything on the conference table.’
A fact is a statement of truth. ‘You are reading this. It’s a fact.’ A factoid refers to something that was reported and accepted as fact, but is actually unverified or inaccurate. An example of a factoid is that many people claim that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon, when in fact no man-made structure can be seen from the moon. If you had good enough vision to see the Great Wall, you would have good enough vision to see several other man-made structures as well, such as the Egyptian pyramids.
Note: factoid is often thought of to mean ‘trivial information,’ but that itself is a factoid.
These words actually mean the same thing. People often confuse inflammable to mean not flammable because of the prefix in, but it is related to inflame (spread fire) rather than not.
Healthful refers to something that is good for your health, like apples or exercise. Healthy means you are in good health physically, mentally, and emotionally. Considering food healthy would be implying that it is ripe and in good condition to eat, not that it is good for your health.
Homogeneous is a word for a group of people that are unmixed in values, ethnicity, etc. It is the opposite of heterogeneous and expressed using stress on the third syllable. ‘South Korea is a culturally homogeneous society.’ This is the word people often mean when they say homogenous. Homogenous is a technical word that means having similar structure due to common ancestry (as in biology or chemistry). The second syllable is stressed. ‘Forelimbs of mammals are typically homogenous.’ Note: trying to fix the confusion between these words is probably a lost cause. We put it here for reference purposes only.
To do something hopefully means to do it with hope or in a hopeful manner. ‘They are praying hopefully and enthusiastically for good grades.’ Using it to mean ‘with any luck’ or ‘with anticipation’ is considered poor use by many usage critics. Hence, you may want to avoid saying something like, ‘Hopefully, I can make it home for Christmas.’
Imply refers to meaning. ‘What are you implying by giving me breath mints?’ Infer means deduce or determine a conclusion based on evidence or reasoning. ‘I can infer by your gift of breath mints that my breath is bad.’
Memory tip: the speaker or actor implies; the observer infers.
In/ Later (time)
In means something will happen at a specific time. ‘I will go in ten minutes.’ The reference point is from now. When indicating a specific time, later must be compared to another time that has been stated or shown. ‘I married Max when I was 26. Three years later, we already had two children, a mortgage, and a car the refused to work.’ If using later in the general sense without providing a specific time, you do not need to provide an initial reference point. ‘I’ll walk the dog later.’
Lay is a transitive verb, which means that in addition to being an action (to place or arrange), it must also include something that receives the action. Laid is the past tense and past participle of lay. ‘He said “lay down the gun,” so I laid down the gun, but he didn’t see that I had laid it down, so he shot me in the chest.’ Lie is intransitive, which means you don’t include what is being acted upon. The past tense form is lay and the past participle is lain. ‘That dog always lies down after eating my shoes. It lay down yesterday after eating my Nikes, and it has lain down now after eating my Pumas.’ Notice you wouldn’t say ‘The dog lay itself down’ because lay with an object–itself in this case–would be present tense. Hence, it would need the third person -s: The dog lays itself down.
Note: lied is not the past tense form for either of these verbs. If you lied it means you told an untruth.
Be careful with the spelling and pronunciation here. Many people pronounce this word with an e sound after the v, like mischievee-ous. But standard English doesn’t have the extra vowel sound. This is an example of intrusion, where we add an extra sound to a word to make it sound more natural. Make sure your pronunciation of this word has three syllables, not four.
Passed is the past tense of pass. ‘With dry topics and unresponsive students, time passed so slowly in class today.’ It also means ‘accepted.’ ‘With a majority vote, the bill was passed.’ Past is a noun signifying a time previous to now. ‘Sure I’ve done some bad things to you, but that’s in the past and we should look to the future.’
Pay/ Salary/ Wage
As a noun, pay is the money you earn for work. As a verb, it is money you give for goods or services. Be careful with the past tense forms while spelling. Remember, it’s spelled ‘paid,’ not ‘payed.’ ‘My teacher paid me to stop asking questions in class.’ Salary is money you earn regularly, typically on a monthly basis, and totaled annually. Salary is used for professionals and white-collar workers. ‘It’s crazy how taxpayers have to support high salaries for companies receiving government assistance.’ Wage is earned on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and is typically used for manual labor or unskilled work. ‘I think I’m going to get a raise soon; minimum wage is going up.’
Penultimate is the second to last. Don’t confuse this to mean the ‘most ultimate,’ even if it sounds impressive. The penultimate syllable sound in ‘penultimate’ is ‘ti.’
Peak is an adjective meaning the highest point. ‘Even at his peak, he wasn’t very good.’ Peek is a verb that means look quickly, slyly, or both. ‘Why do guys peek at each other when standing at a urinal?’
Peruse is a word that means read, but has two definitions in direct conflict with each other. The primary definition is to read carefully. ‘The adept lawyer perused her books, looking for anything that might help the case.’ The second definition is ‘to read at one’s leisure.’ ‘With nothing else to do, I perused the paper in my skivvies.’ However, this is considered improper use of the word by several critics.
A prima donna is the leading female singer in an opera, but the word is also used for someone who brags and loves attention. ‘Celebrities are such prima donnas these days.’ It is spelled in two parts. Be sure you avoid thinking of it as premadonna or pre-madonna, which would mean before Madonna.
Principal means chief, main, or the most important. ‘The principle source of confusion in this document is that it lacks meaning and rationality.’ Principle refers to a value, standard, or law, especially relating to personal conduct. ‘With so few principles, he can freely take advantage of his business associates.’
Memory tip: a principal is a person, so is a pal.
Where means, in what place? ‘Where are you going at this time of night?’ Wherefore means ‘why.’ ‘My parents don’t like your name. Wherefore art thou Romeo?’
Who is used for the subject or predicate noun in a sentence. Whom is used for the object. Know the difference by changing the question into a statement and substituting he, she, we, they, or I for ‘who;’ and him, her, us, them or me for ‘whom.’
Who/ whom took my oatmeal cookie?
Change to a statement: He took your oatmeal cookie.
Solution: Who took my oatmeal cookie?
Who/ whom did he give it to?
Change to a statement: He gave it to me.
Solution: Whom did he give it to?