Top Misused Words Part IX

Happy Birthday, Noah Webster!

In 1828, at the age of 70, Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language. He hoped to help children in overcrowded schools better articulate themselves and standardize American speech. Born on October 16, 1758, Webster is now known as the Father of the American Dictionary. 255 years later, Webster’s birthday is celebrated by thousands on “Dictionary Day.”*

It’s with great pleasure that we dedicate this edition of the Top Misused Words to Webster and to all who are passionate about language.

Assume vs. Presume

assume – to suppose to be the case, without proof; to take or begin to have (power or responsibility).

Incorrect: I’m not 100% sure, but I would presume a “Toad in the Hole” is an amphibian in the ground.
Correct: I’m not 100% sure, but I would assume a “Toad in the Hole” is an amphibian in the ground.

presume – to suppose something is the case on the basis of probability; to be audacious enough to do something.

Incorrect: Judging from the recipe – a dish of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter – I would assume “Toad in the Hole” is delicious!
Correct: Judging from the recipe – a dish of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter – I would presume “Toad in the Hole” is delicious!

Decimate vs. Devastate

decimate – kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of (original meaning limited to kill one person in ten).

Incorrect: Julius Caesar threatened to devastate the 9th Legion during the war against Pompey.
Correct: Julius Caesar threatened to decimate the 9th Legion during the war against Pompey.

devastate – destroy or ruin (something).

Incorrect: The city was decimated by a huge earthquake.
Correct: The city was devastated by a huge earthquake.

Ensure vs. Insure

ensure – make certain that (something) shall occur or be the case.

Incorrect: Encourage passengers to wear seatbelts to insure their safety.
Correct: Encourage passengers to wear seatbelts to ensure their safety.

insure – arrange for compensation in the event of damage to or loss of (property), or injury to or the death of (someone), in exchange for regular advance payments.

Incorrect: If you don’t live in an earthquake zone, should you really ensure your home with an earthquake policy?
Correct: If you don’t live in an earthquake zone, should you really insure your home with an earthquake policy?

Farther vs. Further

farther – used as comparative of far; more distant in space than another item of the same kind.

Incorrect: On the further side of the mountain, you’ll find treasure.
Correct: On the farther side of the mountain, you’ll find treasure.

further – to a greater degree or extent; help the progress or development of (something); promote.

Incorrect: She had depended on articles to farther her exposure as an Expert Author.
Correct: She had depended on articles to further her exposure as an Expert Author.

Literally vs. Figuratively

literally – in a literal manner or sense; exactly.

Incorrect: I can’t believe you figuratively ate an entire half gallon of ice cream in one sitting!
Correct: I can’t believe you literally ate an entire half gallon of ice cream in one sitting!

figuratively – in a figurative sense; metaphorical.

Incorrect: The Haunted House was so scary: I literally died of fright!
Correct: The Haunted House was so scary: I figuratively died of fright!

Proofread. Maintain your credibility. Avoid confusion. Gain readers. It’s that easy! Do you have any misused words you’d like to see added to the Top Misused Words series? Share them in the comments section below – we’d love to hear from you!

For more posts like this, check out the Top Misused Words category!

* This post was updated on October 16, 2013 at 4:15 p.m. CST.

40 Comments »


1
Anselm Anyoha writes:

COOL, I almost never thought of the difference between ensure and insure. I will be watching out for the two words from now onwards.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 10:38 AM

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2
Walter Salm writes:

Compliment vs. complement

Incorrect: “The new product compliments the original XYZ machine.”

Correct: “The new product complements the original XYZ machine.”

Correct: “She complimented me on my excellent publication.”

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:16 AM

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3
David Brenner writes:

The Assume/Presume illustrations very interesting.

On this basis, seems that Stanley’s famous greeting to Livingstone – “Dr Livingstone, I presume” – is spot-on !

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM

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4
davidinnotts writes:

Webster wasn’#t a pleasant man, and his ideas of ‘standardization were highly idiosyncratic; yet like Dewey, Wilde and some others, he did a great service to the language. He is rightly lauded, even on the UK side of the Pond!

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:32 AM

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5
davidinnotts writes:

We may have lost the fight for ‘literally’. The abuse of this word has become so extensive that using it in its proper sense – as above – can lead to confusion. I’m tending now to find another expression to express the thought (which isn’t easy!) to avoid seeming just to use trite emphasis.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:37 AM

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6

Troubleshooter is another word frequently misused to mean the Trouble maker. Really interesting to remind ourselves about theses set of words.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:37 AM

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7
Edward A Dundon writes:

What about these words:

condone / condole

overestimate / underestimate

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:49 AM

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8
Durwood Walker writes:

They all struck me right where needed. In my vocabulary! For sure, I’ve used all of these incorrectly at one time or another.

Wow, that’s a good one? When does one use “other” vs. “another?”

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 12:04 PM

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9
Dolores writes:

How about toward and towards, regards and regard?
I see these words misused all the time.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 12:32 PM

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Great additions, Dolores!

~Vanessa

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10
Sharon writes:

Sorry, but that was not 255 years ago. Either it was 185 or you got the year wrong.
Just posted in the interests of accuracy.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 12:32 PM

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Jack Tyler writes:

I was thrown by the dates and time of 255 year period also. How ever all the necessary information was in the article.

Webster published the dictionary when he was 70 in 1828 but he was born in 1758. The 255 refers to years after his birth not years after the publication.

Cheers

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WR writes:

I just calculated Sharon and the 255 years is correct. It’s 2013 now not 1913. :)

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Sharon,

You’re exactly right! You’ll note that we updated the post accordingly.

Thanks for the input. :-)

Marc

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11
Marie maille writes:

How about to enquire and inquire

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 2:52 PM

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David Brenner writes:

Different spelling – but identical meaning and each is absolutely acceptable and correct when used within the right context.
Ditto Inquiry/Enquiry.
Perhaps one of the two spelling variants is more favoured – or favored ! – in different parts of the world.

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davidinnotts writes:

Here in the UK, all but pedants regard these as identical. There does seem to be a preference for one or the other in different contexts, but I’ve never found a pattern to this, and never spoken to a British expert who would affirm that substituting one for the other was wrong.

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12
Maverick writes:

How about these words affect and effect, accept and except, bisect and dissect

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 5:22 PM

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13
Sasangka writes:

So helpful for any writer whose English is not his native language.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 7:53 PM

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14
Gracious Store writes:

I never knew there was anything like a dictionary day, thanks for this information.

Comment provided October 16, 2013 at 11:09 PM

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15

a very useful information. Some confusing words have been working good.

Comment provided October 17, 2013 at 12:55 AM

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16
Sunil Chadha writes:

Happy Dectionary Day Penny, I am very happy to read this post.

Comment provided October 17, 2013 at 12:57 AM

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17
Anupam Majumdar writes:

very useful article, the difference between Assume vs. Presume and topic is very good and interesting.

Comment provided October 17, 2013 at 1:47 AM

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18
Jan Tallent writes:

bravo! I love knowing that I am not the only one who shudders and shrieks when I see these words misused! I just had the “insure/ensure” typo to fix the other day on a proofreading assignment. I KNEW it was wrong but still looked it up to make sure it was not just my over-suspicious proofreader mind, lol

Comment provided October 17, 2013 at 7:07 AM

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19
Roger Webb writes:

Doesn’t the expression ‘for free’ drive you potty

Comment provided October 17, 2013 at 9:10 AM

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davidinnotts writes:

Roger, it used to, but now I accept that it’s becoming common currency and I regard it as OK (another expression now accepted) when used grammatically. I don’t use it myself, though.

‘For free’ does, after all, make logical sense, following similar usages; more than a lot of long-accepted expressions which had their origins in usages which have now died, leaving the expression as a historic relic. Of course, pedants love these illogical relics, while denigrating any neologism, whatever its sense. They’d have hated living alongside Shakspere!

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20
Randall Magwood writes:

“Ensure vs. Insure”

I always get this confused. When i see “Ensure”, i think about the nutritional drink lol. But i believe “Ensure” means to guarantee….?!?

Comment provided October 20, 2013 at 2:48 PM

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davidinnotts writes:

Easy, Randall:
‘Ensure’ is to make sure it happens;
‘Insure’ is to arrange to get compensation if it doesn’t!

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21
Emily writes:

‘Swam’ and ‘shrank’ have pretty much died.

Comment provided October 25, 2013 at 9:03 PM

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22
Emily writes:

There was a grammar school reading book titled ‘If I Were Going.’ The conditional tense has died. The few who say, and even who write ‘if I were’ are designated purists.

Comment provided October 25, 2013 at 9:05 PM

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davidinnotts writes:

Both of these are examples of how the English language is changing, Emily. 1500 years ago, English was one of the world’s more complex languages, with dozens of tenses and a strong preference for modifying sounds within the word to indicate tense, gender, belonging and number. ‘Swam’ and ‘swum were not at all the same meaning, and ‘were’ and ‘was’ certainly not! But gradually, English has simplified and modification by prefix and suffix and additional words has come to dominate today.

The problem is that there is a huge number of ‘relict’ uses which belong to past methods of word modification, where the rest of the set has vanished. I suppose that we have to accept this in a living language which isn’t (like French) governed by fiat. It’s hard for new users, though!

What I do try to fight against is the careless conflating of completely different but similar-looking words (as in this article) and the casual confusion of words when people can’t be bothered to learn their language properly. And this is almost entirely a sin of native speakers! I say: “long live a living language, long live the innovators, but damnation for the careless and the pedant!”

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23
Graham Marsden writes:

Don’t forget the classics:

There (location)

Their (belonging to them)

They’re (short for “they are”)!

Comment provided October 26, 2013 at 1:49 PM

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Hi Graham,

You can find these classics in our first rendition of the series, found here: http://blog.EzineArticles.com/2012/03/top-misused-words-of-the-english-language.html

~Vanessa

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24

Thanks for the clarification. I honestly can say I did not know the exact definition of some of these terms.

Comment provided October 28, 2013 at 3:08 PM

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25
Robert Burroughs writes:

When someone says they are nauseous instead of nauseated I just reply “Yes you are.”

Comment provided October 28, 2013 at 7:26 PM

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Emily writes:

Robert, those pretentious uses are more irritating than normal infractions, aren’t they?

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davidinnotts writes:

Mmm. I also get the urge to give a cutting answer that the offender, hopefully, doesn’t get but everyone else does. But there are two problems: first, I always come up with the reply long afer the moment has passed; and second, if it was an honest try to be correct, I don’t want to offend but to correct – and that’s a can o’ worms itself!

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Emily writes:

Putting the sentiment into a sardonic remark – something along the lines of ‘Oh, I see. Do you really feel you are that way? Maybe you should look it up.’ That passes, whichever category the offending remark fits into.

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26
Salihu S Dikko writes:

The dedication of this edition of the top misused words to
Noah Webster and to all who are passionate about language are grate gifts.
And if at the age of 70 years, he came up with a Dictionary, it means and shows that old age does not bare one from learning.
Today, after about 185 years of this very great development, Dictionary still waxes good and fine.
The Authority that declares the day:HAPPY DICTIONARY DAY,should extend the good gesture to become:HAPPY DICTIONARY MONTH, if only applicable to: AUTHORS, STUDENTS and TEACHERS,who use DICTIONARY than any other segments.
Once more, happy Dictionary Day.

Comment provided November 2, 2013 at 1:41 AM

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27
Lucy writes:

I read the story about Noah Webster with my kids when they were young. It took him decades (I forget how many) to put the dictionary together. I agree that he should get a month, not just a day, to be remembered for the gift of the dictionary he gave to us.

Comment provided November 5, 2013 at 10:54 AM

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