I love the movie “The Princess Bride.” Absolute classic, right? And here is my favorite line from the movie, though choosing a favorite really is difficult; there are far too many:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” ~Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
You’ve got to love that! And I bet you can completely relate to it as well because we are all guilty of it. Every one of us. I still have to check myself on certain words (though I’m not going to tell you which ones!). The fact is, I don’t have an editor on stand-by to set me straight so I have no other choice than to self-edit.
And now you can too. Keep this list of commonly misused and abused words nearby so you can check it when in doubt and stop the cycle of word abuse.
Adverse / Averse
Adverse means unfavorable. Averse means reluctant.
Always wrong in American English. It’s afterward. Skip the “s” if you want to use it correctly.
Complement / Compliment
Most common of all abused words; so common, you will actually see it in products that make it to print. Get clued in: complement is something that adds to or supplements something else. A compliment is something nice, hopefully, someone says about you.
Criteria is plural. Its singular form: criterion. If someone tells you they have only one criteria, simply laugh and tell them to either get some more or to get a clue.
Farther / Further
Here’s an easy way to remember this one: when you use farther, you are referring to physical distance. When using further, you are talking about an extension of time or degree.
Fewer / Less
If you can count it, use fewer. If you can’t, use less.
Historic / Historical
OMG. I see these poor little words misused and abused almost every single day! Historic — an important event. Historical — something that happened in the past.
Hopefully is abused so much, it should just be considered a lost cause. I hope (not hopefully; that would just be wrong, right?) this will help you appear smarter: only use hopefully if you’re describing the way someone spoke, appeared, or acted.
CORRECT: I hope she says yes. NOT: Hopefully, she says yes.
CORRECT: It is hoped that the weather cooperates. NOT: Hopefully, the weather will be good.
CORRECT: She eyed the diamond engagement ring hopefully.
Imply / Infer
Imply means to suggest indirectly — to send a subtle message. Infer means to come to a conclusion based on information — to interpret a message.
Insure / Ensure
Unless you are talking about insurance, insure is always incorrect. Ensure means to guarantee, and that’s probably what you mean, right? Of course it is!
I’ve told you this before: irregardless is not a word. Use regardless or irrespective, but never, ever irregardless. (Regardless of what your friends or anyone else may tell you!)
“I’m literally starving to death.” Really? Unless you live in a third-world country, I doubt it. When you use literally, you mean that what you are saying is exactly true, completely accurate, and not an exaggeration. Quite honesty, in the world that most of us are fortunate enough to live in, everything is figurative. Or relative. Take your pick.
Premier / Premiere
Here’s is another lowly abused word that I see every day. And here’s how to tell them apart: premier is the first and best in status or importance, while premiere is the opening night of a movie. The two are not interchangeable no matter how hard you try.
Principal / Principle
Once and for all:
Principal — as a noun, the top dog; as an adjective, the most important of any set. Principle — always a noun meaning a fundamental truth, a law, a rule, or a code of conduct.
Just like afterwards always wrong in American English. It’s toward. Skip the “s” if you want to use it correctly.
This one always surprises me because unique literally means one of a kind. Nothing can be very unique, or truly unique. It either is or it isn’t. Period.
Who / Whom
The mother of all abuses, and one that should be written off as a lost cause. I mean, really, I’m not even sure why bewildered high school English teachers even bother teaching this to their students anymore.
But, if you want to get it right, here’s how: use a simple substitution method — who for subjects and whom for objects.
Now you are ready to rule your writing with an iron fist. Or like an editor.