Most misunderstood words are born in spoken speech; at one time, they would only gradually bleed into writing. Whether due to an honest typo or a flat out error, confusion in grammar and misunderstood words can now fly across the planet at lightning speed, thanks to email forwarding and “copy/paste” in social media. Continued exposure to misuse or improper spelling can even replace words that were carefully hammered into our heads while we originally learned to speak and write them.
Dictionary companies will grudgingly add/alter meanings if English speakers grab onto something and won’t let go, but this doesn’t happen often, and they are firm when it comes to simple misunderstandings. In this list of commonly misunderstood words, the definitions are unyielding and unlikely to change, no matter how often they are misused.
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You think it means: historic
It means: pertaining to the past, but not necessarily important to it or a part of it
We visited historic Gettysburg to watch re-enactments of the battle; the actors wore historical clothing and had historical weapons.
You think it means: any book
It means: a book that is a work of fiction
Hidden among the shelves of Math and English books was a novel by Isaac Asimov.
You think it means: fewer
It means: a smaller amount of uncountable nouns
Fewer sheep in the pasture means that less grass will be eaten.
You think it means: with no interruptions
It means: duration over a long period of time, not necessarily without interruption
Continual power outages throughout the winter led to my continuous winter cough and cold.
You think it means: famous
It means: having an extremely bad reputation; never used in a position manner
Bob was infamous at work for helping himself to unattended cookies; Betty was famous for finding new places to hide them.
You think it means: systemic, pertaining to or affecting the body as a whole
It means: involving a system, method, or plan; orderly
Phyllis’ doctors began thorough, systematic tests when they couldn’t cure her systemic infection.
You think it means: prescribe; to order the use of something, such as medication; to direct or dictate
It means: to denounce, banish, outlaw, or exile
Teachers generally proscribe the reading of comic books while in class, though many will prescribe a chapter of reading from text books each night for homework.
You think it means: above, beyond, or better than ultimate
It means: next to last
The penultimate chapter of any novel is generally the climax, and the last chapter is usually a cool down and wrap-up.
You think it means: cautious or misbehaving
It means: unusually advanced in development, especially mentally
Despite the fact that she was only nine, the precocious child could already read at a college level.
You think it means: alternative
It means: to interchange successively or regularly
As an alternative to running a single horse to exhaustion, Pony Express riders would alternate horses as they rode from town to town.
You think it means: no longer open for debate or closed to discussion; factually wrong
It means: open for debate; an assembly of authoritative persons; or an argument or discussion, especially of a hypothetical legal nature
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is a moot question, and many people continue to argue it; prominent poultry farmers recently held a moot in an attempt to reach a final decision.
You think it means: nauseated
It means: to induce nausea
The nauseous smell in the room made me feel nauseated.
Social media has unleashed communication–we can chat instantly with someone on the other side of the planet–but it has become notorious for poorly-written English. For this reason, that person on the other side of the planet can become confused in conversation. Have you had any recent conversations in which poor grammar/spelling or word confusion got in the way of the discussion?