In his book The Sense of Style, Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker explored the most common words and phrases that people tend to trip up on.
Here are 10 of the most commonly misused, along with meanings and explanations from the author of the word origins guide Haggard Hawks & Paltry Poltroons, Paul Anthony Jones:
1) Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.
Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.
PAJ — Bemuse and amuse both derive from ‘muse’, meaning ‘to ponder’ or ‘to be lost in thought’. But the be– of bemused essentially means ‘extremely’ or ‘to excess’, as it does in words like bewitched, bedazzled, and befuddled. So if you’re 'extremely lost in thought’ then you’re utterly confused.
2) Disinterested means unbiased and does not mean uninterested.
Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / Why are you so uninterested in my story?
PAJ —The trick to remembering this one is that disinterest is a word on its own, while ‘uninterest’ isn’t. If you ‘disinterest’ yourself, you remove your ‘interest’ or concern in something, whereas if you’re just not interested in it, then you’re uninterested.
3) Hone means to sharpen and does not mean to home in on or to converge upon.
Correct: She honed her writing skills. / We're homing in on a solution.
PAJ — The best way to remember this one is that ‘hone’ is also another word for a whetstone (a stone used to sharpen razors and knives), and the verb ‘hone’ derives from the image of things being ‘sharpened’ on it.
4) Appraise means to ascertain the value of and does not mean to apprise or to inform.
Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
PAJ — Appraise and appraisal come from the same root as price, and so refer to cost or money. Apprise comes from the same root as apprentice, and so refers to knowledge or information.
5) Enervate means to sap or to weaken and does not mean to energize.
Correct: That was an enervating rush hour commute. / That was an energizing cappuccino.
PAJ — Whereas energize derives from energy, enervate derives from a Greek word literally means ‘to cut the nerves’, and so is used to mean ‘to weaken’.
6) Staunch means loyal, sturdy and does not mean to stanch a flow.
Correct: Her staunch supporters defended her in the press. / The nurse was able to stanch the bleeding.
PAJ — Despite their different meanings, both stanch and staunch derive at length from a Latin word meaning ‘watertight’ (and in the sense of 'something that has no outflow’ are etymological cousins of ‘stagnant’). While stanch is usually only ever used as a verb, however, staunch is always an adjective; the sense of ‘loyal’ or ’sturdy’ is thought to derive from the reliability of watertight containers.
7) Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.
Correct: His sales pitch was not credible. / The con man took advantage of credulous people.
PAJ — If you’re ‘credulous', then you’re liable to believe something no matter how ‘credible' it might be. Both words derive from the Latin credere, meaning ‘to believe’, as do credit, credentials and incredible (which literally means ‘unbelievable’).
8) Refute means to prove to be false and does not mean to allege to be false, to try to refute. [Note: That is, it must be used only in factual cases.]
Correct: His work refuted the theory that the Earth was flat.
PAJ — Arguing against or alleging that something is false is rebutting it, not refuting it. The two are similar but very subtly different, with clues to their meanings hidden in their etymologies: refute comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to drive or beat back’, while rebut comes from the same root as ‘butt’ (in the sense of a knock or blow).
9) Fortuitous means coincidental or unplanned and does not mean fortunate.
Correct: Running into my old friend was fortuitous. / It was fortunate that I had a good amount of savings after losing my job.
PAJ — Strictly speaking a fortuitous event can be either good or bad, whereas a fortunate one is always good. The best way to remember the distinction is that in order to talk because ‘fortunate’ always refers to good things, it needs its own opposite, ‘unfortunate’. ‘Fortuitous’ can be both good and bad, and so a word like ‘unfortuitous’ doesn’t exist.
10) Depreciate means to decrease in value and does not mean to deprecate or to disparage.
Correct: My car has depreciated a lot over the years. / She deprecated his efforts.
PAJ — Like appraise, depreciate comes from the Latin word for ‘price’, whereas deprecate comes from the Latin for ‘pray’ and literally means ‘to pray against or for deliverance from something’, so is now used to mean ‘to express criticism of’.