Words that are Most Misused in the English Language

A Cacophony of Errors

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Commonly Misused Words in Formal Writing

Many words are commonly misused in the English language, either through ignorance, expediency, or misspelling. Here are a few of them. Note: This is in reference to FORMAL writing, not tweets or other informal communications!

inflammable This dangerous word should NEVER be used because it means BOTH "to catch fire" and "not to catch fire"! Use "flammable" and "nonflammable" instead to avoid the dangerous ambiguity!

"All natural" compared with "safe" Plenty of "all natural" things can harm you and are not safe at all, for example: lead, radon, arsenic, poison ivy, cacti, great white sharks, poisonous plants and mushrooms, certain snakes and bugs, and so on.

thru or through The word "thru" is simply a shortening of the word "through", and should not be used in formal writing. It will confuse people not familiar with colloquial English, such as people for whom English is not their first language or people from another English-speaking culture that doesn't use this unnecessary shortcut. If you use this often, set you AutoCorrect in Word to automatically correct it for you. Note that this advice applies to most of the words in this list.

alot and a lot and allot In this case "alot" is simply wrong. It is a misspelling of “a lot” (many) or allot (to distribute). People unfamiliar with English cannot look it up in a dictionary and have the meaning clarified, and adding a space between "a" and "lot" really doesn't take up much room in one's writings. Might as well educate yourself and your family now. Note that the word "allot" means to divide up and pass out something, such as food or money.

til or till instead of until or 'til This is another case of laziness or ignorance. The word "til" does not exist. It is an English colloquialism (In other words, a localized common misuse of a word) for "until". Since they are both small words, you might as well just spell out "until" and make everyone happy. While you're at it, add the word "til" to the misspelling list in Microsoft Word so that it is flagged as a misspelling and add it (til-->until) to the AutoCorrect list. Make the software help you look good! That's what it's for!

Xmas instead of Christmas This is a major holiday in some countries, including the U.S. Is it really necessary to abbreviate it this way? Should "Christ" really be replaced by an "X"? Although there is religious and popular precedent for allowing this abbreviation, as an editor I would still mark it incorrect because it is an abbreviation, just like I would mark any other unnecessary abbreviation as incorrect in formal writing.

hole and whole This one is confusing to many. A "hole", for example, would exist in the ground where your new tree was about to be planted. It is an absence of something. That's an easy way to remember that "hole" is missing the "w" of "whole". "Whole" means complete and entire--"I ate the whole box of cookies." or "The whole jackpot went to Chris." In other words, these two are somewhat opposites of each other: a "hole" is an absence of something, where as a "whole" is a completeness of something. Remove the "w" if you mean "hole", use the "w" if you mean "whole."

refridgerator or refrigerator and fridge or frige This is a simple spelling error. There is no "d" in refrigerator, and "frige" would typically be pronounced "fr-eye-gh" using typical English pronunciation. Just spell out the whole word when writing formally and say the whole word when speaking even semi-formally.

desert and dessert This is a common spelling challenge for most of us because both words are valid English with different meanings. A desert (one “s”) is dry, and some are hot and sandy, whereas a dessert (two “s”es) is something that you might want a second helping of while dining. (“Seconds”=2 “s”es in "dessert" is an easy way to remember this difference in terms.)

Internet or internet Why is “Internet” capitalized? I do not know either, because it is a thing and not the name of a thing, therefore it doesn’t pass the capitalization rule: capitalize the names of persons, places, and things. Nevertheless, the current editorial rule is to capitalize “Internet”. Note, however, that an "intranet", which is an internal company/group’s "Internet", is NOT capitalized. They’re just trying to confuse us, I think. I look forward to the day when Internet is not capitalized any longer.

Interstate roadway or interstate roadway Again, this is a capitalization thing. “Interstate” describes a type of automobile roadway, it is not the NAME of the roadway. Nevertheless, again we must capitalize it according to the standards: Interstate roadway. However, note that plenty of roads can run "inter-state", but that "inter-state roadway" is not capitalized.

harras or harass This is a common spelling error. If you pick on someone mercilessly, you “harass” them (one “r”). In contrast, if you embarrass someone you need to use two “r”s, just to be confusing I think.

capitallize or capitalize This is another common spelling error, one that I make too often. There should be only one “l” in “capitalize”, even though it might seem like you should use two. I remember this one by thinking, “capital-ize”. Again, set your Auto-correct in Microsoft(R) Word(R) to fix this automatically for you.

thx or thanks if you're legitimately, honestly thankful, take a moment to type out the extra three characters in “thanks”, even if you’re texting someone. Emily Post would approve.

"She corrects my grammar, too, but it all just sounds like barking to me."
"She corrects my grammar, too, but it all just sounds like barking to me." | Source

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Comments 26 comments

wetnosedogs profile image

wetnosedogs 3 years ago from Alabama

I love these hubs about grammar. Undoubtedly, I am a culprit, but not necessarily on purpose. Sometimes I know something is not right, but don't know why.

Great one.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thanks! I'll write some more! :-)

Meg Moon profile image

Meg Moon 3 years ago from United Kingdom

Xmas isn't a 'misused' word it's a perfectly acceptable abbreviation based on the Greek letter X -Chi, which stands for Christ. The Chi Ro, The X and P symbol is based on the first two letters of the Greek for Christ and is used commonly by Christians, especially in churches. Christ isn't being replaced by an X- the X means Christ.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

I learn something new every day! Thank you, Meg Moon! I stand corrected!

Do you think, however, that most users of "Xmas" know this, or that they are simply abbreviating because it's convenient or clever? In my 40+ years, I've never heard of this and it was not taught in my protestant religion and is NEVER used in it.

I still suspect that expediency is the primary reason for this abbreviation; since I believe such is the case, as taught by my religion, I find it offensive and unnecessary in a heavily Christian-based society.

tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 3 years ago from California

Always good to think about word usage.

DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

You made good points here on the misused words int he English language, well pointed out.

Meg Moon profile image

Meg Moon 3 years ago from United Kingdom

I would think you are right in your suspicions but I personally don't know why that would be so offensive. I teach religion and philosophy and I often abbreviate Christianity to Xy when writing on the board- it allows me to write what I need to write a lot quicker and therefore I can teach them more. I think as a religion if all you've got to be offended about is people using short hand in reference to you then you are doing alright ;)

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author


Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thank you, too, DDE.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Good points, Meg Moon!

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

Boy do I know a lot of people who should be reading this ;) Truly an excellent primer for new English users and an even better reminder for old English users! Great job.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thanks for the compliments, tillsontitan! I, too, know a bunch of people who should be reading this (hint hint). Thanks for the votes and feedback, too.

epigramman profile image

epigramman 3 years ago

Hello Laura and good afternoon from lake erie time ontario canada 3:35pm from Colin, Little Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel.

I try to amuse my words, lol, and not to abuse or misuse them.

They are simply lovely little friends to have around when you need them and in the hands of great writers it can always create the most sublime experience for any reader.

I love your selection of eclectic choices for hub presentations and this one naturally caught my eye and it was an enlightening and educational read for me - and I thank you sincerely for that.

I am sending you warm wishes and good energy on this sunny Saturday afternoon

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thanks, epigram man! It's great to meet a fellow word herder! Cheers!

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

Very well done. I, too, have written more than one Hub about misused/misspelled words. It is frustrating to deal with, that is certain. I see so many of these errors in print publications as well. Does no one employ proofreaders anymore?

To address the "Xmas" abbreviation, it is so common and pervasive that I don't feel it is worth stressing over. As far as removing the "Christ" part, it actually does not, as the "X" was an early Christian symbol FOR Christ...so it is still there for those who wish it so.

I agree that one should be careful in their writing to avoid shortcuts and abbreviations that might be confusing; but I make an exception in the case of character-delimited forums such as the ubiquitous "Twitter," in which the limit is 140 characters--not just letters--that includes spaces and punctuation. In order to get a message across there, it is necessary to resort to ugly shorthand such as (for example), "I c u got a new bike. I'd like 2 c it when ur thru with ur work--call me B4 u go."

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

DzyMsLizzy, I totally agree on the Twitter situation! You almost have to abbreviate shamelessly or never communicate at all. :-) Twitter is informal communication, however, with its own rules and mores, just like chat and even telegrams.

When I was writing this article, I was thinking only in terms of formal American English writing, however, since that is what I write and edit regularly; I definitely should have specified this up-front in the article to avoid confusion! Many apologies to all.

Having said that... Regarding "Xmas" (and x-mas, xmas, X-mas...), however, when editing formal writing I will continue to mark it as an error unless there are some special circumstances for using the abbreviation in that context, such as the writer is explaining what Xmas means. Why? Because my protestant religion taught it as an error and I can't find a single reference book/source that lists it as a valid formal term (in American or any other form of English): Merriam-Webster, defines "Xmas" as "Christmas" and "Christmas" does not list "Xmas" as a synonym; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "informal term for Christmas;" the Cambridge Dictionary as, "abbreviation for Christmas;" Wikipedia says, "Xmas is a common abbreviation of the word Christmas," and it has a lot to say about other sources that deprecate its use (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xmas#Style_guides_and... ; The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. as, "...Xmas as an informal shortening pronounced (ksms). Many therefore frown upon the term Xmas because it seems to them a commercial convenience...," (all verified on 3/31/13). Since abbreviations are rarely appropriate for formal writing, except in special cases as I mentioned, and since the major sources agree that "Xmas" (and none of the variations I listed above but have seen used) is not a formal word but rather an abbreviation, I will mark to have the author spell it out formally in formal communications.

Informal communications (email, letters, chalkboard lessons, Tweets, FaceBook posts, blog entries, etc.) don't get edited, generally, so the writer is free to do as they wish unless they are writing for an employer who specifies otherwise.

To learn more about "Xmas", specifically, see Wikipedia's fascinating entry: Wikipedia is the most accurate source of knowledge we have, arguably, since scholars worldwide freely and constantly edit its entries for accuracy.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

I agree, for formal writing, and I understand that is what you were addressing here. I do however, disagree as to Wikipedia being a reliable source. True, 'scholars' can write there, but so can you and I and anyone else. When I was doing some writing for Demand Studios a while back, it was specifically prohibited to use Wiki as a reference because it is not reliable.

(Upon re-reading, I notice that Meg Moon also cited the Greek Chi-Ro as the "X" for "Christ" in the Xmas discussion....) ;-) There are a thousand points of view that could be endlessly argued on the matter, but I don't feel it's worth the time or energy; in my opinion there are more important issues in the world than whether someone chooses to abbreviate the word "Christmas."

Make no mistake--I did enjoy and agree with 99% of your article! ;-) Best wishes to you.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thanks again, DzyMsLizzy! I agree with 99% of what you're saying, too. Sometimes an editor is bound by outdated or incorrect information, too. ;-) Best wishes to you! (And merry Xmas).

American_Choices profile image

American_Choices 3 years ago from USA

Excellent! Very concise and very helpful. God bless you and your family! Yes, I love the word "God" and I love "Christmas" and feel these words are a part of my tapestry and for the sake of freedom I should be allowed to say these and see these words! Which takes me to a need for a hub on the political words that we have whitewashed which has served to diminish our culture and our founding fathers beliefs. Ba humbug on "Happy Holidays!" :)

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thanks for your comments and for standing up for freedom of speech! :-) I absolutely love your phrase "... part of my tapestry..."! Cheers!

i scribble profile image

i scribble 3 years ago

I love this kind of stuff. Once tutored a 7th grader in reading/writing. She didn't realize that till is an informal form of until, but acknowledged they mean the same, when I pointed it out. Someone provided an interesting historical explanation of Xmas. As a strictly intellectual counterpoint, I once had a student whose Christian faith (fundamental I think) taught him that use of the abbreviation was some sort of sacrilege, like celebrating Halloween, though I don't remember why. Afraid I'm guilty of using the abbreviation sometimes just because my typing is slow or I'm running out of room. In a limited character situation, I would definitely use the abbreviation and any others to get my point across. Can we agree to disagree?

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 3 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Absolutely we can agree to disagree! My article was about formal writing, though the comments got a bit off-track I admit, so in formal writing there wouldn't be a character limit situation so we would (I think?) still agree and not use X-mas. :-)

First Colony profile image

First Colony 2 years ago

Excellent Hub. I remember when I was in elementary school, the teacher told us to pretend we had a vacant lot next to our house and that one day the lot was filled with wood. After that happened, we would have a lot of wood. That has stuck with me and I always separate the two words.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 2 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Excellent way of remembering! Thanks for sharing!

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

Thank you. I could use some of these in my ESOL class (with British English spelling! Naturally.) I've had loads of fun with desert puddings and camels in my dessert - very confusing for the learner!

Votes and a share.

Laura Schneider profile image

Laura Schneider 2 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Author

Thanks! Best of luck on your ESOL class. Glad I could help.

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