Correct use of language matters. It ensures we communicate our thoughts the way we intend that communication. It becomes doubly harder as a writer. We are supposed to know better but being human we don’t always get it right. Strangely it is the little things that trip us up, if we don’t check the dictionary. The problem is we assume we know, and as everyone knows when we ASSUME, we make an ASS out of U and Me. It’s such a great expression and I wish I knew who to credit the saying to, but unfortunately, I don’t. I just know most people are familiar with it. This assuming is what drives the vehicle to error land.
A couple of years ago I read a short post by Laura Blackhurst in A Writer’s Path featuring the most common words misused in writing, and in speech. English with its historically varied input, one that continues today as the language expands to include words for foods and fashions from new nations, and of course technology, is hard enough on the native speaker. And of course, there also exists the spelling differences between British and American English. It’s enough to drive the best of us a little crazy.
Anyway, I thought this would be a good reason to look at this topic with light-heartedness as we let Laura explain why we possibly make errors. I only chose a few and I hope you find the reasons for my choice interesting. If you want to look at a few more, click on the link I gave you.
I chose this one because I have often misused it, yet as a teacher I know better. I know, insane right? Why do we make these mistakes? Irony, ironic and ironical seem to be words people love to use so you would think they would know the correct way to do that. All I could come up with was the fact that its various formats somehow sound clever and a tad sophisticated. As a consequence, we tend to twist it to suit our purpose but in doing so often twist the meaning. Laura gives the following examples: “I finally got to go to the shops on my break, and they were closed! Isn’t that ironic?”
It isn’t at all ironic, it is inconvenient or coincidental but “spending half of your life making fire extinguishers, and then dying in a fire because you didn’t have one” is a perfect example of irony.
We think ultimate means the best, the ultimate pair of boots. It sounds right. What it means in actual fact, is the last in line, or last on the list. I had to add this one because I have never stopped to consider this at all. In fact, it feels odd to me. Language is manipulated and can become thought of as correct and widely used despite the original meaning. It totally confuses me so think how confusing this could for someone learning English.
Laura says we think of this as meaning uninterested in a conversation, an idea, or a person. Wrong. To be disinterested means free from bias or impartiality. If we are disinterested, we are not influenced by what we may gain. I know this and yet I also know I have used the word incorrectly. Mmm?
My hand is up here for guilty. I use this a lot, not so much in writing but definitely in speech. We use it to emphasise things. Laura’s wrong example is one you would recognise –“I literally died laughing.” What has been done is a use of the word as something that has occurred when it hasn’t. Puzzled? Laura explains it this way. “He literally danced with joy.” If the person is jumping up and down with happiness, then it’s correct. She further explains by using this example – “she literally exploded she was so angry.” This is just not going to happen. People do not explode this way.
What we think it means: “unusual” or “rare.” Many of us use this when commenting on how unusual we think something is, “Oh, that colour is really quite unique isn’t it?” What it actually means: the one and only, a single example that there is, one of a kind. So, something can simply not be “pretty,” “somewhat,” “rather,” or “quite” unique.
Laura says this contradicts what you are saying. There are no different degrees of “unique.” So, “Janet’s dress is pretty unique” = wrong, but “The sparkling light was the unique star in the sky that night” = correct! If you still don’t get it- think of a unicorn. You don’t see many around.
Are you as fascinated as I am? Language is an amazing thing, complicated by the way it is always evolving. Do you have any you want to share?
Questions for me? Want to share your views and ideas? I’d love to hear from so please leave me a comment and I will get back to you. A like will do and it will keep me working hard to improve. Follow or connect with me at:
I guess I would have to admit to using a couple of these. It just drives me crazy when someone misuses literally, though.
it drives me crazier when I do the misusing. lol It is so easy to makes mistakes though. I found a grammar one in this post lol.
Thanks for stopping by..
I’m with you on “ultimate”: in any living language, words can shift in meaning over time. In this specific case the change is logical, as it means the thing is the last item in an unstated list of things-of-that-kind, ordered along some dimension. (Even if that dimension isn’t at all measurable really, like “act of bravery” or “beauty”.)
I still suspect Alanis Morrisette didn’t realise her Ironic song was ironic because all its examples of irony were wrong. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to notice that.
I’d love to see you do a similar post because you do notice these weird and wonderful things.
Barbara, I read your post with great interest today because the blog post I’ve written for next Monday is “My 11 Favorite Grammar Pet Peeves.” (It started out a couple of weeks ago as my three favorites, but it’s grown to 11.) The only duplicate example we share on our lists is the word unique. Thank you for each of your examples today. I learned that I’ve used disinterested incorrectly all my life! Yikes!
i can’t wait to read it. I love learning these sorts of things.
Nice post. Mistakes we often make as writers but, as you note, more common in speech. I enjoy stumbling upon new words, but I may have to review the old ones 😅