A Few Misused Words I Can Accost You With

I like to keep a list of words that are used incorrectly; here are a few. You might want to jot these down and collect them as you discover them over time. I’ll be sharing batches of these from time to time so it’s good to keep a notebook handy.

  • Accost. The word has no reference to physical contact. It means to approach and speak to someone in an abrupt or challenging manner.
  • Decimate. Writers often misuse this word, which has its root in deci, or ten. The original meaning was “to kill one in ten.” This meaning faded over time, but its true use now is to cause a great loss of life or to destroy a large part of something. It never means to complete annihilate (use that word instead, if that’s your intent).
  • Enormity. This word is almost always confused with enormousness, and the problem is that enormity means a monstrous, vicious, immoral act—a very negative connotation. So if you say something like “I was overwhelmed with the enormity of arranging my daughter’s wedding” you would be tainting the event in a way that you might not want. Lots of people make this mistake. I believe it was used in Obama’s inaugural address, and he wasn’t talking about some monstrous evil.

You might feel that if everyone is using a word incorrectly, and the accepted meaning of a word has changed and is now accepted in society to mean something different, then it’s fine to use it incorrectly. Well, being a copyeditor and a handler of words, my feeling is no, we shouldn’t. Garner’s wonderful reference book  Garner’s Modern American Usage (which I use a lot) rates words and phrases (on a scale of one to five) as to how accepted they have become with their “new” usage. Some words have fully changed so that they mean something much different from their original meaning. This happens all the time and is part and parcel of the way language evolves, and that’s to be expected. But until a word reaches “stage five,” which means it’s wholly acceptable, it’s best to use the word in its original or traditional sense. Using a dictionary like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th Edition will also help you discern whether you are using a word correctly. I love having that dictionary loaded on my computer and on my task bar. I keep it open all day as I work and refer to it often. You might try it and like it.

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  1. Love this post Susanne 🙂 One of my pet peeves when reading a book is misspelled words or errors in grammar/word usage. I agree with you about keeping a dictionary nearby when writing, I love webster’s website 🙂 As a writer, my goal is to improve in using language correctly and I believe you expressed that very well in this post. Have a wonderful weekend!
    Blessings, Kara

  2. A third meaning (in my Merriam-Webster)for enormity is “immensity.” This certainly implies a large (huge) amount of something.

    1. Yes, it does have that definition. M-W also argues against my point, but clarifies by saying it means “something so large as to seem overwhelming…and may even be used to suggest both great size and deviation from morality.” I tend to lean more on Garner’s stage 4 determination that using enormity is a “misuse of enormousness” since the traditional and more widespread usage and understanding is that of implying evil, viciousness, or something monstrous. I’m thinking that in situations where an intended meaning, due to a more common understanding of a word or term, might wrongly or even detrimentally color the meaning intended by the sentence, it is best to opt for clarity by choosing a word that won’t confound or mislead.

  3. As I writer I really focus on the more unusual words and write their meanings down. I came across a brilliant word last year – benighted – but my copy editor said I used it in the wrong context. I used it in a sentence where I described the people in my local area as benighted, but my editor erased it from the page.

  4. I certainly agree that a lot of words are misused, but what annoys me is not the misuse but the ignorance that drives the misuse. “Enormity” is especially annoying, because there is no handy replacement once it becomes fully acclimatized to its new “meaning”, and the language is thus debased.

    By the way, I would challenge your definition that “enormity means a monstrous, vicious, immoral act”. I consider “enormity” to be an abstract noun (“great moral wickedness”: OED), while “act” is a concrete noun.

    I have more to say on “enormity” and how other words and phrases are misused and/or their meanings become debased in Mind Your Language (if interested).

    1. I wonder if the shift in the perceived meaning of enormity has to do with the fact that most enormities are by nature enormous, therefore because the words have the same root, people who are trying to figure it out by context naturally fixate on size rather than the quality of the act in question.

      It may take a fairly extensive and sophisticated reading background to become sensitive to the difference.

  5. I’m not at all sure my comments are sticking, but those three examples of word misuse were interesting. I don’t believe I have ever noticed them in reading. Decimate, probably. I could add a few more to the list. One that springs to mind is: “impractical” where the writer means “impracticable”.

  6. Love the article. I think I was subliminally aware of the differences, but it’s worthwhile to take the time to think about the consciously.

    My personal pet peeve is “equally as” as in, “Harriet was equally as attractive as Sue.” Or less egregiously, “Sue was attractive, but Harriet was equally as attractive.”

  7. I would add misused words like maybe and may be, every and versus everyday, some time and sometime.

    Maybe – perhaps or possibly (as in something might happen),
    may be – has the ability to happen (as in implies something can happen).  

    Every day – means each day individually,
    everyday – (acts as an adjective) means: frequent or often.

    Some time – an extended period of time. Here the word “time” acts as a noun and the word “some” acts as an adjective describing time.
    Sometime – at some unspecified point of time. Sometime is an adverb telling when.

    If I have some doubts I use dictionaries. Hope this helpful information…

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