10 Commonly Misused Words in Writing



The English language is one of the most complex in existence. With more words than any other language in the world, it is no wonder even native speakers don’t get it quite right all the time. Here’s a quick run down of my top ten most misused words. Some I am guilty of misusing myself, others are absolutely my pet peeve.


10. Ultimate
What we think it means: we often use this to mean “the best” or “greatest” when describing how good something is. Some wrong examples: “That was the ultimate burger” or, “The Top 100 Ultimate Hits of the 80s.”

What it actually means: the last in a list of items. Also, this is the one I am most guilty of using incorrectly in everyday life. To use it correctly in a sentence for example: this entry is not the ultimate in the list, we are only just beginning! This is perhaps one of the most widely misused words in the English language. Some may argue that this therefore means that this use is correct, and is now a commonly accepted part of the English language, that it is not wrong, and the word now does carry this meaning purely through how misused it is. Where do you stand on the debate?


9. Disinterested
What we think it means: uninterested, showing no interest in something whatsoever. “I tried to talk to Kate about my problems, but she was completely disinterested.” Wrong.

What it actually means: disinterested means free from bias or impartiality, not influenced by considerations of personal advantage. For example, “A lawyer is obliged to impart disinterested advice.”


8. Less
What we think it means: we think we can use this whenever the heck we want when trying to describe when there is not as much of something. “Mary had less apples than Margaret.”

What it actually means: we should actually use “fewer” when items can be counted individually, so we would say, “Mary has fewer apples than Margaret.” When something is more figurative, general or cannot be counted, we use “less” as in, “Bob has less hair than Paul.” Fewer as meaning “not as much” opposed to fewer as “not as many.”


7. Literally
What we think it means: this is used as emphasis simply far too often. “I literally died laughing.” I am 100% sure that you literally did not, especially since you have appeared to live to tell the tale.

What it actually means:  literally should be used to describe something that actually happened or is happening. “He literally danced with joy.” If he really is jumping up and down with happiness, then this is ok. However, “She literally exploded she was so angry” is probably pretty unlikely.


6. Chronic
What we think it means: we often (myself included) use this to mean “very bad” or “extreme.” For example, “He was suffering from chronic back pain.”

What it actually means: chronic really means “long term.” So someone that is suffering from chronic pain actually means the pain is lasting. An easy word to misuse.


5. It’s
What we think it means: this is a very common and totally unforgivable mistake. “We were in awe by the palace and it’s superior beauty.” We don’t think twice about sticking that controversial friend, the apostrophe, just about anywhere we like.

What it actually means: “it’s” always means “it is.” So, “It’s a beautiful day” is absolutely fine as it is a contraction of “it is”; however, “It’s façade was crumbling away” is most certainly not.


4. Noisome
What we think it means: we quite forgivably seem to think this means “noisy,” “boisterous,” or “loud” as in, “The boys became more noisome as the night progressed.” The correct meaning is somewhat different.

What it actually means: noisome, when used correctly, means disagreeable, unpleasant, or offensive to the point of arousing disgust. So be extremely careful when jumping to describe someone as “noisome,” they may not take to it too kindly! A correct example could be, “The food in the fridge had gone off, ensuring a noisome smell filled the rest of the house.”


3. Desert
What we think it means: “I just ate the biggest desert I’ve ever had in my life.” Well you’re definitely a contender for Man Vs. Food then. Yup, many of us insist that “desert” is the spelling for the last course in a meal.

What is actually means: yes, “desert” is a hot sandy place, or alternatively can mean to abandon someone or something. “Dessert” is the proper spelling for the food you eat after your main course. “I ate my dessert in under five minutes,” you’ve got it! My rather strange way of remembering is that “dessert” is the longer word with the extra “s” even although a “dessert” is quite substantially smaller than a desert. If you, like me, can easily get your head round bizarre ways of remembering things, you will never spell either of these words incorrectly again.


2. Unique
What we think it means: “Unusual” or “rare.” Many of us use this far too often when commenting on how unusual we think something is, like, “Oh, that colour is really quite unique isn’t it?”

What It actually means: the one and only. The single example that there is. One of a kind. So something can simply not be “pretty,” “somewhat,” “rather,” or “quite” unique. This contradicts the meaning of what you are saying. You cannot use these adverbs to convey different degrees of “unique.” So, “Janet’s dress is pretty unique” = wrong, but, “The sparkling light was the unique star in the sky that night” = correct!


1. Ironic
What we think it means: ironic does not refer to an amusing coincidence as many seem to be led to believe. So many instances of irony are used incorrectly: “I finally got to go to the shops on my break, and they were closed! Isn’t that ironic?” Not at all. It’s just a bit of an annoying coincidence.

What it actually means: ironic is really about when the opposite outcome occurs to what was expected. One of the best examples is Alanis Morissette’s hit song “Ironic.” Every single example in the song is NOT ironic, cleverly making the song itself completely ironic. It is ironic because this is a song meant to be about irony, but none of the examples used in the song are ironic! For example, “It’s like rain on your wedding day” isn’t so much ironic, as it is frustrating. However, spending half of your life making fire extinguishers, and then dying in a fire because you didn’t have a fire extinguisher, now THAT’s irony. Geddit?

Did that help? Or did you know it all, anyway? I bet you have a few of your own you’re dying to shout at me now. Tell me what you’d add to this list!


Guest post contributed by Laura Blackhurst. Laura is the editor-in-Chief at Scotcampus, lives in Scotland, and regularly travels throughout Europe. Check out more of her articles on her blog.

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50 thoughts on “10 Commonly Misused Words in Writing

  1. Just remember that desserts is stressed spelled backwards and you’ll never confuse it with desert again.

    Decimated is one that I see misused a lot. It means to destroy one in ten, not the wholesale destruction most people think of, but I think this is one case where the dictionary has adopted the common usage.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. The way I try to remember dessert is because it has more sugar (S) than a desert… but yes, some of these get me all the time! Haha Yours is a good way of remembering too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are great. A couple of them made me stop and think about how I’ve used them improperly! May I add “peruse” which I always thought of as giving a quick glance to something when it actually means to examine in detail.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I have argued with my child repeatedly about using “literally” incorrectly. And, as I have argued, it has been bastardized over time and added to current dictionaries because of its transformation. The following article discusses the transformation. I love studying etymology and this is one of the peeviest peeves of all. Of course, he is young, so he has plenty of time to pick up all kinds of nasty literal habits.



  4. Teaching “literally” to my elementary-aged reading groups is one of my favorite things to do. After the main lesson, I throw incorrect examples at them to see if they’re paying attention. “When I saw your work, my head literally exploded!” They always catch me and have fun in the process. 🙂
    I’ve never heard/used “noisome”. Thanks for the new word!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. #’s 8 and 5 – ‘less’ and ‘it’s’ – are my pet peeves. Related to #5 is when people use an apostrophe S to pluralize something! So irritating! >=/

    I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi so I don’t usually make mistakes like these, but I have to admit that I have misused ‘unique’ in the past, at least in my mind/conversations if not in writing. Well, I learned something new then, which is good! Thanks for the great article!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ‘Less’ as an expression of quantity has a long and interesting pedigree. I would like you to think about – and accept – a couple of things:

    1) Words change their meaning. Many that we use today originally had a different meaning. I could name ‘awful’ as an example, but there are many more. The use of ‘ultimate’ in the way you criticise is an example of one such change taking place; it is an extrapolation from the way that sometimes we leave the best or the greatest till the last in a list. Whether you like it or not, it’s happening. Welcome to the way that language lives.

    2) Many of the rules that you set out are arbitrary. They are the product of decisions made by certain men who, in the late 18c and early 19c, had had a particular kind of education. Theirs was an attempt to standardise the English language, and in doing so they introduced rules that English had never had, mainly from Latin. For example – never ending a sentence with a preposition; that’s an impossibility in Latin, but it happened and happens all the time in English. Another example – the differentiation between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’; until their time ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ were often used interchangeably. And do you know what else? Nobody minded, as long as the meaning was clear!

    Don’t get me wrong – sometimes some of these rules can be useful, for clarity. But thought they are good servants, they are bad masters and only harm the dynamism and creativity of the language in the hands of its users – us.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Laura, Ryan – great post. All of the above, when used wrongly, drive me mad. I’m a retired school teacher but I retain my pedantic, geeky and (some would say boring) tendencies. My grown-up children love to deliberately use ‘literally’ when talking to me – just for the entertainment value of my reaction. Laura, keep on fighting the fight for what’s right 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice post. : )
    I find one of the interesting aspects of language to be how they are much more dynamic than most of us would like them to. English is especially interesting because it likely has more non-native speakers than native speakers. Misuse of words (or at least a change in meaning) is certainly nothing new, though, just look at words such as ‘protest’ or ‘awful.’ Personally, I think a little rigidity is a good thing. Not because change is bad for a language per se, but swift changes reduce the clarity of meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I had to stop reading at #5. “It’s” does NOT always mean “it is.” It can also mean “it has.” It’s been a beautiful day.


  10. I was under the impression that ambivalent meant not caring just until last week when I was alerted to its proper meaning of having mixed or contradictory feelings. Along with its/it’s I think it is careless when people get your/you’re and there/they’re mixed up!


    1. The Republic of Texas (am I being pedantic here? Texas is a Republic, as Massachusetts is a Commonwealth) has declared that a corporation can be a ‘person’. I’m waiting for them to prove it by executing a corporation.

      Sorry… I’m attempting to hi-jack the thread… must stop!


  11. I have two quibbles.
    #8: in the last line you describe fewer as meaning both not so much AND not so many. In the first instance, you meant to write less.
    #4: one of the meanings of noisome is unpleasant smelling, so noisome smell is redundant. Unfortunately, this can obscure clarity – was a “noisome crowd” obnoxious or stinky?
    We have many peeves in common. I was feeling pretty clever until I got to #1 and realized that I am iffy on irony. Ah, the irony.


  12. Great post. The almost constant misuse of “it’s” drives me up the wall (but not literally.) To this list I would add the verbs “to lay”, a transitive verb meaning to put an object down somewhere, and “to lie”, an intransitive verb meaning to lie down (yourself.) I think the confusion arises because the past tense of “to lie” is “lay”, so for example, “he lies down” and “he lay down” are both correct, just in different tenses. “He lays down” is totally wrong. “Hens lay eggs” is correct. I blogged about this question here: http://margaritamorris.com/2014/05/08/to-lie-or-to-lay-that-is-the-question/


  13. Erin McKean said “a language is just a group of people who agree to understand each other.” Language is just things making sense. I’ll understand what someone means if they say ultimate. The new meaning of that word is whatever people use it for. Language is found in people, not dictionaries.


  14. Oh dear! Just what I struggle to teach my students. These are the common mistakes we all make, unknowingly. Thanks for such an eye opening post!
    Thanks for passing by my blog, as that brought me here! 🙂


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