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24 Commonly Misunderstood Words & Phrases

Updated on December 25, 2016

Checkout this video for more information about misused english words and phrases

Being an academic researcher, I often find myself messing up common phrases. When I’m unsure, I do a quick Google search to make sure that what I’m writing is actually what I’m trying to say. This inspired me to come up with a list of common phrases that people frequently get wrong. Some of them aren’t completely our fault because the incorrect way of saying them has actually become the “norm”. But we’re still wrong.

Here’s my list of common phrases that you might be saying incorrectly. Don’t be embarrassed if you notice you use the incorrect phrase; we all do it.

1. Dichotomy

Dichotomy means two mutually exclusive alternatives and does not mean difference or discrepancy.

Correct: There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers. / There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.

2. Make do

Mistaken as "make due" which would mean to "make owed". Make do is short for making something do well, especially during tough situation.

3. Emigrate/Immigrate

Emigrate is leaving one country to move to another while immigrate means to enter or reside in another country.

The verb "emigrate" is always used with the preposition "from," whereas immigrate is always used with the preposition "to." To emigrate is to come from somewhere, and to immigrate is to go to somewhere. "Jimmy emigrated from Ireland to the United States" means the same thing as "Jimmy immigrated to the United States from Ireland." It's just a matter of what you're emphasizing--the coming or the going.

4. Literally

Literally is often misused to express intensity when in fact, it is a word that implies something is completely true. Don't use literally unless something is true.

Correct: I didn't mean for you to literally run over here. / I'd rather die than listen to another one of his lectures — figuratively speaking, of course!

5. On accident vs. By accident

Sometimes I feel very sorry for people attempting to learn English. With phrases like this, it must be awful. You can do something on purpose, but not on accident. Prepositions are a killer.

33 Most Commonly Misunderstood Words

Commonly misunderstood words & phrases
Commonly misunderstood words & phrases | Source

6. By in large

When you want to say “on the whole,” or “everything considered,” make sure you don’t accidentally say “by in large.” The correct phrase is “by and large.”

In a Sentence:

“By and large, the discovery call went well.”

7. For all intents and purposes

"For all intents and purposes" means for all practical purposes.

8. Enormity

Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness. (Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness).

Correct: The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.

9. Whet Your Appetite

This expression is more often used incorrectly than correctly--56 percent of the time it appears online, it's wrong. The correct idiom is "whet your appetite." "Whet" means to sharpen or stimulate, so to "whet your appetite" means to awaken your desire for something.

10. First-come, first-serve

This suggests that the first person to arrive has to serve all who follow. The actual phrase is "first-come, first-served," to indicate that the participants will be served in the order in which they arrive.

11.Aggravate vs. mitigate

Aggravate means "to make worse". Mitigate means "to make less bad"

12. Skim and scan

“Skimming” and “scanning” are two different reading techniques. If you’re trying to get the gist of something, you “skim” it by quickly looking over the main sections and keywords.

If you’re trying to find a specific detail, on the other hand, you “scan” the document.

In a Sentence:

“I skimmed your company’s SEC filings to get a better sense of your financial history.”

“I scanned the meeting notes to find where we discussed payment.”

13. Etc.

Not to be used of persons. Equivalent to and the rest, and so forth, and hence not to be used if one of these would be insufficient, that is, if the reader would be left in doubt as to any important particulars. Least open to objection when it represents the last terms of a list already given in full, or immaterial words at the end of a quotation.

At the end of a list introduced by such as, for example, or any similar expression, etc. is incorrect.

14. Rein and reign

“Rein” refers to the straps you use to guide a horse -- which explains its second meaning, "to keep under control or restrict."

To “reign,” on the other hand, is "to rule or command a kingdom."

In a Sentence:

“Let’s pull in the reins on the spending -- we’ve already blown through half our monthly budget, and it’s only June 5.”

“She reigns over the HR department.”

15. Ensure and insure

They might sound similar, but “ensure” means "to make certain," while “insure” refers to buying insurance.

In a Sentence:

“We ensure all of our suppliers meet OSHA regulations.”

“My company insures its most expensive equipment.”

16. Thanking you in advance

This sounds as if the writer meant, "It will not be worth my while to write to you again." Simply write, "Thanking you," and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.

17. Opportunism

Opportunism means seizing or exploiting opportunities and does not mean creating or promoting opportunities.

Correct: His opportunism brought him to the head of the company. / The party ran on promoting economic opportunities for the middle class.

18. Proceed and precede

To “proceed” is “to continue,” whereas “precede” means “to go before.”

In a Sentence:

“Thanks for pausing -- we can proceed.”

“Can we go back to the preceding point?”

19. Deep-seeded

According to typo-proofing tool Correctica, even the Washington Post and White House have gotten this one wrong. The correct version is “deep-seated,” as in “firmly established” or “ingrained.”

In a Sentence:

“Your deep-seated presence in the local community is impressive.”

20. Unexceptionable

Unexceptionable means not worthy of objection and does not mean unexceptional, ordinary.

Correct: "No one protested her getting the prize, because she was an unexceptionable choice." / "They protested her getting the prize, because she was an unexceptional choice."

21. Urban legend

Urban legend means an intriguing and widely circulated but false story and does not mean someone who is legendary in a city.

Correct: "Alligators in the sewers is an urban legend." / Al Capone was a legendary gangster in Chicago.

22. Practicable

Practicable means easily put into practice and does not mean practical.

Correct: His French was practicable in his job, which required frequent trips to Paris./ Learning French before taking the job was a practical decision.

23. Piece of mind vs. peace of mind

When you give someone a “piece of your mind,” you’re letting them know why you’re angry.

“Peace of mind” is very different: It’s a calm, relaxed state you enter when you know nothing’s wrong.

In a Sentence:

“If Jane still can’t get a sales engineer for the call, she’s going to give Sarah a piece of her mind.”

“Mind if I look over the deck for typos one last time? It’ll give me peace of mind.”

24. Expresso vs. Espresso

I’m sure those of you who work at coffee shops have had people order an expresso before. There’s no such drink. The drink you’re trying to order is an espresso.

Top Commonly Misused Words - English Vocabulary Lesson - YouTube


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    • Vijeta Kashyap profile image

      Vijeta Kashyap 8 months ago from Rawalpindi, Pakistan

      Hi Megha, thanks for the appreciation. :)

    • Vijeta Kashyap profile image

      Vijeta Kashyap 8 months ago from Rawalpindi, Pakistan

      I am glad that you find it useful Robert :)

      I intend to write more about etymology of english words and phrases in future, hope you will like it too. ;)

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 8 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      Hi Vijeta, I also thank you for these. I presume the misuse of "aggravate" that you had in mind when listing it here is using it to mean "irritate" or "upset."

      I think the king of misunderstood or misused words in English nowadays has to be "disinterested" used instead of "uninterested." I tell everyone who makes this mistake that if, G-d forbid, they were on trial for murder, they would definitely want a disinterested judge to try their case--and definitely NOT an uninterested one!