38 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make
English vocabulary is full of pitfalls that you might not be aware of. Don't let them trip you up.
If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.
A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.
3. Free Rein
The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the G relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.
4. Just Deserts
There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.
Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment: “It was torture!”
When you want to talk about the influence of one thing on another, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Weather affects crop yields. Weather has an effect on crop yields. Basically, if you can put a the or an in front of it, use effect.
People rarely use accept when they mean except, but often put except where they shouldn’t. To accept something is to receive, admit, or take on. To except is to exclude or leave out—“I’ll take all the flavors except orange.” The X in except is a good clue to whether you’ve got it right. Are you X-ing something out with the word? No? Then consider changing it.
Discreet means hush-hush or private. Discrete means separate, divided, or distinct. In discreet, the two Es are huddled together, telling secrets. In discrete, they are separated and distinguished from each other by the intervening T.
When you add information to a sentence with parentheses, you’re more likely to need e.g., which means “for example,” than i.e., which means “in other words” or “which is to say ...” An easy way to remember them is that e.g. is eg-zample and i.e. is “in effect.”
People didn’t have as much trouble with these two before websites came along and everyone started talking about sites a lot more than they used to. A site is a location or place. Cite, on the other hand, is a verb meaning to quote or reference something else. You can cite a website, but not the other way around. If you’re using site as a verb, it’s probably wrong.
People sometimes use disinterested when they really mean uninterested. To be uninterested is to be bored or indifferent to something; this is the sense most everyday matters call for. Disinterested means impartial or having no personal stake in the matter. You want a judge or referee to be disinterested, but not necessarily uninterested.
Are you talking about showing off? Then you don’t mean flout, you mean flaunt. To flout is to ignore the rules. You can think of flaunt as the longer showier one, with that extra letter it goes around flaunting. You can flout a law, agreement, or convention, but you can flaunt almost anything.
Phase is the more common word and usually the right choice, except in those situations where it means “to bother.” If something doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t faze you. Faze is almost always used after a negative, so be on alert if there is an isn’t/wasn’t/doesn’t nearby.
Loath is reluctant or unwilling, while to loathe is to hate. You are loath to do the things you loathe, which makes it confusing, but you can keep them clear by noting whether the word has a “to be” verb on one side and a to on the other (he is loath to, I would be loath to), in which case loath is correct, or it can be substituted by hate (I loathe mosquitoes), in which case you need the E on the end.
The word wave is far more frequent than waive and has a more concrete meaning of undulating motion. It’s often used for waive, “to give something up,” perhaps because it fits well with the image of someone waving something away. But when you waive your rights, or salary, or contract terms, you surrender them. You can think of the extra I in waive as a little surrender flag in the middle of the word.
16. Intensive Purposes
Intensive is a word that means strong or extreme, but that’s not what’s called for in this phrase. To say “practically speaking” or “in all important ways” the phrase you want is “for all intents and purposes.”
Run the gauntlet and run the gamut are both correct, but mean different things. Running the gauntlet was an old type of punishment where a person was struck and beaten while running between two rows of people. A gamut is a range or spectrum. When something runs the gamut, it covers the whole range of possibilities.
This pair causes the most trouble in the phrase sneak peek where the spelling from sneak bleeds over to peek, causing it to switch meaning from “a quick look” to “a high point.” If you imagine the two Es as a pair of eyes, it can help you remember to use peek for the looking sense.
Fortuitous means by chance or accident. Because of its similarity to fortunate, it is commonly used to refer to a lucky accident, but it need not be. Having lightning strike your house and burn it down is not a lucky event, but according to your insurance company it will be covered because it is fortuitous, or unforeseen.
To refute a claim or an argument doesn’t just mean to offer counterclaims and opposing arguments. That would be to respond or rebut. To refute is to prove that a claim is false. If you refute, the disagreement should be over because you’ve won. If someone accuses you of not having paid for something, you refute the accusation by producing the receipt.
These words are easy to confuse not only because they sound alike, but because they both have to do with guarantees. To ensure is to make sure something does or doesn’t happen. To insure is to use a more specific type of guarantee: an insurance policy.
Disperse is more common and has a wider range of meaning than disburse. To disperse is to scatter, separate, or sprinkle around. To disburse is only to give out money.
Not many words in English end with ak, but flak does because it’s a shortening of a German word: fliegerabwehrkanone (anti-aircraft gun). Flak is artillery fire, and by metaphorical extension, criticism. The less common flack is for a publicist or someone who tries to drum up attention for a person or product.
24. All Right/Alright
Though alright spelled as one word is beginning to be accepted by a few style guides, it is still considered an error by most. Write it as two words.
The bated in the expression bated breath is related to abated. The breath is reduced, or almost held, in anticipation. It is not baited like a fish hook.
Illusion is the more common word and usually the one you want. An illusion is a false impression, something that seems real, but isn’t. Allusion is mostly used in literary contexts. It is a hint at something else, or a pointer to other work, such as a character name that refers back to a Shakespeare play.
To flounder is to flop around clumsily, like a fish on land. It can be used metaphorically for inconsistent or unproductive behavior. That’s why it’s easy to confuse with founder, which means to sink or fail. If a business is floundering, there’s still a chance to turn things around, but if it’s foundering, it’s best to cut your losses.
28. Hear, Hear/Here, Here
When you want to give enthusiastic approval, the correct expression is “Hear, hear!” It came from the sense of hear him out! or hear this! and not from a sense having to do with here, the present location. Here, here! is an answer to “Where should I put this cupcake?”
It’s better to be amused than bemused. Amused means entertained, while bemused means puzzled or confused. It’s the difference between a smile and a head scratch.
Hearty is for things that are warm and nourishing, like a robust welcome or an abundant feast. They have heart. Hardy is for things that are tough and durable, that can stand up to the elements and survive. They are hard.
Whether you're talking about fears, habits, or emotions, the correct term is deep-seated. Talk of depth and rootedness brings the idea of planting to mind, but seeds don’t enter into this expression.
A compliment is a kind or flattering comment. Complement means to go together well. Your shoes may complement your dress, but if I remark on how sharp you look I am giving you a compliment.
To hoard is to collect and keep things in a secure or hidden place, and hoard itself keeps its stash of vowels all tucked away inside the word. A horde is a big crowd. Its vowels are scattered over the word, like a horde of tourists on a sidewalk.
If you can substitute in “who is” or “who has,” then the one you want is who’s. Otherwise it’s whose.
They only differ by one letter, but perpetuate gets a whole extra syllable. That works well, because perpetuate means to keep something going (to make it perpetual) while perpetrate is to commit a single act, usually a crime.
36. Pore Over/Pour Over
When you study a document carefully, you pore over it (almost as if you are inspecting its tiny pores). If you were to pour something over it, like juice or coffee, that would make it much harder to read.
Conscience is a noun, and conscious is an adjective. A conscience can be cleared, or keep you awake at night, or tell you what decision to make. Conscious is a description of a state. If you’re conscious you're awake and aware.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.