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“No, That’s Not What I Meant!”

Flickr Photo by Patti Haskins

As a “work-in-progress” writer for the past 20 years, and a blogger for two, I find myself paying way more attention to words and their meanings these days. I’m sure there are many grammar aficionados out there who cringe at some of my word usage and phrasing but that will have to wait for a later blog post.

Most of us learn words by hearing others use them. One of my favorite words that is used incorrectly a lot, and is really not even a word, is “irregardless.”  “Irregardless of what happens I’m going to do… ” The correct word is “regardless” not “irregardless.” There is no such word.

If Everyone Is Wrong, Is It Still Wrong?

If virtually everyone uses a word incorrectly, and everyone understands it incorrectly, is any harm done? I guess not, but everyone used to think the world was flat. Does that mean we should go back to incorrect thinking?

Here are a few of my favorite misused words and their correct usage.
  • Ironic: Most people think ironic is some kind of odd coincidence. “How ironic that my tooth fell out while I was sitting in the dentists waiting room.” That’s merely a coincidence. You were there in the first place for the tooth. What it actually means is something completely opposite to what you were expecting. “Just before my appointment my dentist died. How ironic is that?”
  • Terrific: Think “horrific” instead. This is an example of a word that’s been misused so long the meaning has been blurred. You would think that a terrific event might be a new baby or the Cubs winning the World Series. One hundred fifty years ago it meant causing terror. A “terrific event” would have been an apt description if the twin towers had come down on September 11, 1850.
  • Compelled: This would be a good excuse for Anthony Weiner. “I was compelled to text those women.” To many people the word “compelled” would mean that you felt you had to do something almost beyond your control. That would be a correct definition of the word “impelled.” Compelled means that you are forced to do something either willingly or unwillingly. “The bank robber compelled me to fill his bag with money.” Or the famous line from “The Exorcist,” “The power of Christ COMPELS YOU!”
  • Nauseous: If you say you feel “nauseous” you probably think you are telling those around you that you feel sick or ill. The correct meaning of “nauseous” is that you are making everyone around you feel sick or ill. The correct usage would be to let people know that you feel “nauseated.”

Some Final Thoughts

There is no question that English is a very tough language. On a recent flight I had the opportunity to sit next to a Chinese student who was returning to China after a summer job at Yellowstone Park. He confided in me that English was very easy to read and write but very hard to speak.

I immediately thought of some of the calls I get on the air and sadly had to agree with him. English is a very hard language for even Americans to use correctly. I hope these few examples I’ve shared will entice you to look at how you speak and what you mean more closely. Know what I mean?

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