Everyone misuses a word now and then. Correct word choice is determined not only by denotation (Websters says…), but also by connotation. Connotation refers to common usage which influences degree, slant, or feeling of a word. For example, the words march and amble each denotatively mean “to walk.” However, most of us would agree that marching down a road would be less enjoyable than ambling down that same road.
Many times we get close to using the right word, verbally or in print, but not close enough. Words with similar sounds are often confused. For example, affect and effect sound similar and even have related meanings. Affect means to influence; while effect is to produce as a result.
Of course, in addition to misused vocabulary words, there are also grammatical abuses, such as nouns used as verbs, e.g., loan instead of lend [Will you loan me some money?] We also use redundancies, such as irregardless or ATM machine. We misapply expressions, such as for all intensive purposes or idioms, such as waiting on. We create our own words, such as flusticated or conversate. We also change the meaning of words through common consensus. Who would have thought that bad can now mean something good?
Although Americans tolerate some vocabulary abuse, they are righteously indignant about the misuse of other words. Here, in no particular order, are the Top 40 Vocabulary Pet Peeves that surely constitute the greatest pet peeves among American wordsmiths. Also, make sure to check out the Top 40 Pronunciation Pet Peeves and the Top 40 Grammar Pet Peeves. Find out everything you mispronounce and your grammatical mistakes before “You-Know-Who” points them out to you.
- Anxious means to worry, not to be eager. [So, you probably are not anxious to go on vacation.]
- Exaggerate means to magnify, not to go beyond. [So, you can’t exaggerate how little your pay is.]
- Imply means to suggest, not to conclude as with infer. [So, you don’t imply what the author says.]
- Between means in the place separating two objects, not three or more objects as with among. [So, you won’t choose between oranges, apples, and watermelons.]
- Unique means being the only one of its kind, not something that is special. [So, you don’t describe the sunset as unique.]
- Relevant means pertinent, not popular. [So, a movie is not relevant and fun.]
- Allot means to distribute, not a lot of something. [So, you don’t eat allot of ice cream, but you could allot me a scoop or two.]
- Literally means exactly what the word means or how the author intends; it does not mean truthfully. [So, your mother-in-law is probably not literally crazy.]
- Unbelievable means something that cannot be trusted, not something that is amazing. [So, the unbelievable savings really should be believable, if you intend to buy.]
- Awesome means something that is revered or dreaded, not something that is good. [So, the pumpkin pie really isn’t awesome, unless you worship Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin.]
- Reticent means silent or reserved, not unwilling. [So, you probably are not reticent to go out to dinner with a client.]
- Accept means to receive willingly, not except, which means to exclude. [So, you wouldn’t say “I would like him, accept for his body odor.]
- Already means having done before; it does not mean all ready. [So, your friends could be already all ready to leave.]
- Capitol means the legislative building, not an upper case letter or an amount of money to invest. [So, you don’t declare your capitol gains.]
- Complement means something that completes, not something that goes along with or provides praise. [So, your striped shirt does not complement your polka dotted pants.]
- Principal means the highest rank, not principle, which means a rule or standard. [So, you want the principal of your child’s school to hold to the highest principles.]
- Stationary means fixed in position, not stationery, which means writing supplies. [So, you won’t write a letter on your new stationary.]
- Than means compared to, not then [So, you don’t go to dinner than a show.]
- Whether means if it is so, not because of or anything having to do with the weather. [So, you might like the weather, whether it snows or rains.]
- Occur means an action taking place that is accidental or unforeseen, at least from the point of view of the observers; it does not mean something that is expected to happen. [So, you wouldn’t say that noon occurs at 12:00 p.m. every day.]
- Illicit means illegal, not elicit, which means to draw forth. [So, you wouldn’t illicit information from a police officer.]
- Possible means something capable of happening or being true, not something that is according to chance. [So, anything is not really possible.]
- Irony means an unexpected contrast between apparent and intended meanings or events, not a coincidence. [So, it isn’t ironic that you and your boyfriend both like oatmeal cookies.]
- Anniversary means the celebration of a year, not just any period of time. [So, you don’t celebrate your two-month anniversary of a relationship.]
- Foundered means to struggle, not floundered which means to sink. [So, your cruise ship did not founder to the depths of the Caribbean Sea.]
- Flout means to openly disregard laws or the way things are done, not flaunt which means to display something ostentatiously. [So, you wouldn’t flout your four carat diamond ring in front of your girlfriends.]
- i.e. means that is, or the same as, not for example. [So, you wouldn’t say “I like vacations, i.e., backpacking, going to the beach, and sightseeing.]
- e.g. means for example, not the same as, or in place of. [So, you wouldn’t say “I like vacations, e.g., time off work.”]
- et al means with all others, not and so forth. [So, you wouldn’t say “I like tropical islands, ski resorts, the high desert, et al.
- Et cetera (etc.) means and so forth within the same class; it does not mean and all others. [So, you wouldn’t say “I like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, etc.”]
- Eminent means prominent, not imminent which means something expected to happen soon. [So, your graduation next week is not eminent.]
- Proverbial means according to a wise saying, not something that is well known. [So, you wouldn’t refer to the proverbial hatred of paying taxes.]
- Oxymoron means when two objects are joined that do not fit, not something that is an opposite. [So, it’s not an oxymoron to like both sugar and bitters.]
- Contact means to communicate through touch, not to simply respond. [So, you probably don’t mean “Contact me at your earliest convenience.”]
- Enormity means something grotesquely beyond its intended boundaries, not something that is very large. [So, you don’t refer to the enormity of the hot fudge sundae.]
- Travesty means to ridicule by imitation, not tragedy which means a disastrous event. [So, the sinking of the ship was not a travesty.]
- Decimate means to ruin or reduce by tenths, not to gain victory. [So, you probably don’t really hope to decimate your fellow poker players in the game tonight.]
- Random means to have no causal relationship; it is not something that is unexpected. [So, a joke that is unexpected is not a random one.]
- Allude means to refer to indirectly, not elude which means to escape from. [So, you don’t allude your boss by hiding behind the file cabinet.]
- Attain means to reach or achieve, not obtain, which means to possess or acquire. [So, you won’t attain a collection of baseball cards from the neighborhood garage sale.]
Definitions adapted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2008.
Many of the vocabulary errors described above are made by people with poor decoding, syllabication, or word part skills. Mark Pennington’s comprehensive curricula: Teaching Reading Strategies and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary are wonderful resources to teach reading, spelling, vocabulary, and proper pronunciation.