I was reading around the web for some material for this week’s blog post when I came across a popular article regarding the most misused words in the English language even by native English speakers. The article was right on point and its accuracy actually made it very amusing to read so I thought that I should share my version of its contents with you to keep you in the loop*.
The following words that will be mentioned in this blog will act as encouraging news to English language learners because it’s proof that even native speakers don’t speak English correctly so don’t feel bad when you make mistakes because many English speakers make mistakes too and most of them don’t even realise they’re making those mistakes.
- LITERALLY adv. (Brit. /ˈlɪt(ə)rəli/)
- In a literal manner or sense.
- In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.
This word is misused on a daily basis by native English speakers because it is usually used in place of its opposite meaning, “figuratively.” You might catch people saying things such as “I was literally freezing to death” when it’s getting a bit chilly outside or describe a rainy day as “it was literally raining cats and dogs.” In both cases, the speaker doesn’t mean that he/she was so cold that they were on the verge of death and even if they were then I’m sure they wouldn’t have time to utter the statement. It’s also obvious that there weren’t any actual dogs and cats falling from the sky. Both statements are an exaggeration of the actual situation so the statements are metaphorical, therefore the correct word would be “figuratively”.
- IRONIC (ī-rŏn′ĭk)
- using words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning; containing or exemplifying irony :
- of, relating to, or tending to use irony or mockery; ironical.
- coincidental; unexpected:
There are quite a few meanings behind the word ‘irony’ and ‘ironic’, which have led to the confusion behind the use of this word. You just have to remember that the general meaning of the word is that something is contrary to what you expect. For example, it would be ironic if a doctor dies of drug overdose since he/she is the one prescribing drugs every day as well. If we use a real life situation as an example, you could say that it was ironic when the GP* Harold Shipman deliberately killed 250 of his patients in 2004, because saving lives is a doctor’s duty.
However, something is not ironic if it’s purely a coincidence or unfortunate. The example that the article used that demonstrated this point clearly was: that it is not ironic that Paul Walker from Fast and Furious died in a car that crashed at high speed BUT it is merely unfortunate.
- ULTIMATE adj. (ŭl′tə-mĭt)
This is one of the most common words that has been misused for the longest time possible that over time its meaning has changed to fit the new way it is being used. Truthfully speaking, I didn’t realise that this was a commonly misused word until I read the article because a new meaning has arisen from the misuse of this word, so technically it is not incorrect to use it in the way we have been doing. But before this word’s alternative meaning was approved it was commonly used in advertising. The article used the example of the ‘Ultimate cheeseburger’, according to the original meaning ‘ultimate’ meant the ‘last’. Do you think the phrase refers to the ‘last’ cheeseburger ever? No, of course it doesn’t but it does refer to the ‘best’ cheeseburger ever. You will notice that modern dictionaries will have this new meaning, such as:
- Of the greatest possible size or significance; maximum
- Representing or exhibiting the greatest possible development or sophistication
- Utmost; extreme
- ENORMITY n. (ĭ-nôr′mĭ-tē)
- the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong.
- a grave crime or sin.
I left this word until last because this isn’t a word that is commonly misused by normal people but it is a word that is infamously misused by American politicians. When George Bush was elected president of the United States he described the occasion as an ‘enormity’. He obviously got confused with the similarity between ‘enormity’ and ‘enormousness’, in fact there are grammar forums dedicated to the distinction between the two. Unfortunately, the meaning of ‘enormity’ has not changed even when a powerful political figure used in the wrong sense and I’m sure Bush certainly didn’t want to say his election was an enormity (a sin/ crime) but it was an enormousness (i.e. a huge deal).
So, really don’t worry when you make mistakes because you’re a learner and you’re allowed to! But we, native speakers are the ones who should be ashamed of ourselves for making such silly mistakes. Now, that you know the most common misused words, you can listen to your native friends carefully and correct them when they misuse a word.