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The Editing Hour: More Commonly Misused Words

If a person interested in food is a foodie, does that make us wordies? I’d say yes. And all you wordies out there may remember that I took a class at Editcetera called What’s New in Chicago 16 a couple of months ago, which outlined the differences between the 15th and 16th editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press’s guide to copyediting. My favorite section of Chicago 16 is the Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases on page 262 (section 5.220).

Yes, we discussed commonly misused words back when The Editing Hour was a semi-regular post, but there are so many, many more. So I think today we should take a break from Facebook and Twitter for a few minutes to pay homage to the English language. When I quote, I’m quoting from Chicago 16.

1. Altogether vs. all together: Although my parents were altogether angry that I burned the turkey, they were happy that we were spending Thanksgiving all together.

2. All right vs. alright. It’s all right, all right?

3. Anyone vs. any one: Is anyone home? Have you seen any one of my golf clubs?

4. Avenge vs. revenge: To avenge is to exact something for a wrong (My grudges were avenged.) Revenge is usually used as a noun, but as a verb means to “inflict harm on another out of anger or resentment.”

5. Averse vs. adverse: “Adverse means ‘strongly opposed’ or ‘unfortunate’ and typically refers to things, not people” (The adverse weather conditions caused the hikers to turn back before lunch.) “Averse means ‘feeling negatively about’ and refers to people” (I am averse to eating spinach.)

5. Bemused vs. amused: Bemused means “bewildered” or “distracted,” not amused.

6. Beneficience vs. benevolence: Beneficience means capable of doing good; benevolence is the acting of doing a good deed. “The first term denotes a quality, the second conduct.”

7. Biannual vs semiannual: Biannual means every two years while semiannual means twice a year, or every six months.

8. Enormity vs. enormousness: I discussed this one last time, but I have to hammer it home. Enormity does not mean largeness. It means “monstrousness, moral outrageousness, atrociousness.” Enormousness means “abnormally great size.”

9. Flammable vs. inflammable. They mean the same thing. Because so many people mistakenly believed inflammable meant not combustible, the term flammable was introduced to avoid dangerous confusion, and now has become the standard.

10. Feel bad vs. feel badly. My dad used to say, “You smell like a horse—with your nose.” To feel bad is to be sad or sick. To feel badly is to touch something unskillfully. In other words, it’s feel bad, not feel badly.

11. Forego vs. forgo. To forego is to go before. To forgo is to go without. (Just remember “fore” is in “before.”)

12. Reason why: Although “the reason because” is incorrect, according to Chicago 16, “the reason why” is just fine: “Although some object to this supposed redundancy of this phrase, it is centuries old and perfectly acceptable English.”

13. Less than vs. fewer than: These are two phrases I hear people confuse all the time. When discussing counting nouns (nouns that take an “s” in the plural like “pens,” “bananas,” and “cars,” use fewer than. When discussing partitive nouns (nouns that can’t be counted like “coffee,” “sun,” and “wind,” use less than.

14. If vs. whether: I run into this one all the time in my own writing. I’m never sure which one to use, but I generally go with “whether.” Here’s what Chicago 16 has to say about the difference: “Use whether … to introduce a noun clause (he asked whether his tie was straight) and when using if would produce ambiguity. “If you say, ‘He asked if his tie was straight,” that could mean whenever his tie was straight, he asked. … ‘Call me to let me know if you can come’ means that you should call only if you’re coming; ‘Call me let me know whether you can come’ means that you should call regardless of your answer.”

That’s all for now, folks. But since today is the first day of March, tell me: Is it coming in like a lion or a lamb where you live? Bonus points for anyone who can use one of the above commonly misused words (correctly) in your weather report.

14 comments to The Editing Hour: More Commonly Misused Words

  • I never thought about if versus whether, how interesting. In particular, I never thought about how if might cause confusion.

    I always use all right, but I think at this point alright has become fairly acceptable.

    Also, I constantly find myself pausing and trying to figure out whether to use fewer or less, ha ha.

    Here in Cincinnati, March is coming in like a lamb, but I can't tell whether it's tricking me or not. We've had a very erratic few months of weather.

  • I love these…thanks for doing this again. I really hate the misuse of "alright" — it's never all right to write it as "alright."

  • Meghan,

    You had me at Enormity. I have to have railed against the misuse of this word many times. Though it is like tilting at windmills, much like my frequent rants about peruse (read intently for content, not scan) and decimate (10%). But sometimes one needs to vent.

    He was bemused by the weather, the groundhog had made promises, and he felt cheated. "Damn you Puxatony Phil," he muttered. The rodent had let him down and now he would need to forgo his walk. He wondered if Phil was flammable, but this made him feel bad, as he wasn't the type to harm animals. Anyone who had lived through that horrible winter might have had the same feelings, but it was still wrong. He decided that the offence did rise to the level which required it be avenged. Maybe tomorrow would be nicer?

    Did it seem like I was kissing up there? Oh well. Great blog post.



  • Jackie Wheeler

    Awesome tips! I have a Writing Tip of the Week white board outside my cubicle at work where I post similar tips (If vs. Whether was featured a few weeks ago), and you've just given me several more to queue up. People love the writing tips and often leave comments and questions–especially the engineers, who all seem fascinated with them.

  • Kristan and Sierra – sounds like you two disagree about "all right" and I have to side with Chicago 16 on that one – that alright just ain't all right. And Kristan – it's strange that "if" vs "whether" comes up so often for me in my book. I usually default to "whether" because I think it sounds better, but I bet there are instances in which "if" is better.

    Jackie – I love the white board idea! I'll have more coming at some point – from other parts of the alphabet besides the As and Bs 🙂

  • Meghan, wow, there's a class to tell you the differences between Chicago 15 and 16? Now that's a niche! Loved the list, agree with your alrightness on alright, and wish I'd seen this earlier—I would have stolen it for an editing guide I wrote.

    What, no "alot"?

    Dug your Paris piece too. Thanks.

  • Meghan, I love the thought that they would BE a class to teach the differences between Chicago 15 and 16. That is a nerdish niche I admire. As for "alright," it ain't all right. The lines we draw these days are often in pencil, but they still have to be drawn.

    But why didn't "alot" make this heralded list?

    I just wrote an editing/style guide that had a list like this, but I should steal some of these to make it complete, With alot of attribution, alright?

  • Tom – a lot is briefly mentioned under "alright" (#10) in the first list of commonly misused used words I posted here:… but yes, it deserves its own entry!

    Brian – Sorry for the delay in responding. I just found your comment in my comment spam folder 🙁

    "Peruse" is a great one! The use of "decimate" to mean "destroy a great number of" instead of "destroy 10% of" is fine, though. And great paragraph! Thanks for kissing up 🙂 Also – "offense" with a "c" – is that British?

  • Guest

    This post falls under "Problematic Words." Problem is…. the word "problematic" is commonly misused, as you do here. 🙂

  • rhj

    Problematic means "in the nature of a problem," connoting the lack of a solution: "Ghaddafi's fall from power has made his previous threats problematic." Too many people use it to mean "fraught with problems," which makes the user sound smarter than is warranted. But trying to reverse the misperception of the word has now become largely problematic.
    Get it?

  • counsel dew

    I disagree… If we are to say “decimate” is acceptable to decscribe the destruction of most of a horde rather than just 10%, then any use (alright, etc.) should be accepted. I don’t see any reason to make rules “just because ‘we’ say …” Logic should be used…

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