How Word Meanings Can Embarrass You

English is a very complicated language with hundreds of thousands of words, so it’s not surprising that many people get confused about word meanings. How many ways are there to embarrass yourself?

At least 43, according to the article “43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make” by Christina DesMarais ( I’m not going to list all 43, but here are some of my favorites, mistakes which I of course have never made.

English is full of these little traps, like homographs — words that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently. There are more of these than you might imagine. Like saying “shoe-in” instead of “shoo-in” to mean a sure winner (#6). Another example (#10) is intending “sleight of hand” (dexterity or cunning) but saying “slight of hand” (insulting). And it’s easy to confuse “baited” for “bated” as in “bated breath,” which is #12. Oops.

Sometimes you’re tripped up because the word you need is more obscure. It’s common to say “peaked my interest,” except the correct word is the less-common “piqued” (#17). Or we can just get sloppy and say “sneak peak” when we mean “sneak peek” (#43).

Speaking of sloppy, it’s very easy to say “mute point” instead of “moot point” (#35). A point might be doubtful but probably not silent. The same with “deep-seeded” for the correct “deep-seated” (#41). “Planted deeply in the ground” is not quite the same as “firmly established.”

Some words, through no fault of their own, tend to get overused. A good example is “literally” (#36). Some use it to intensify their meaning, except its definition is “actually” or “in a strict sense.” So saying “My head literally exploded” is incorrect (and hopefully inaccurate).

Finally, be very careful to make sure your subjects and pronouns agree (#28). It’s easy to say “A person who smokes damages their lungs.” (“Person” doesn’t match “their.” Ouch!)

All these little language traps can be a pain, not to mention embarrassing. But then, fixing them is easier than learning another language.

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