Misused Words – Part 1

Misused Words

There are dozens of words that are commonly misused in everyday speech. However, care should be exercised when using this words in your writing. Here are some examples (listed in alphabetical order).


Awful has several, often opposite, uses. In its original usage (13th century), it meant literally “full of awe” (inspiring awe) or “worthy of respect or fear” (e.g., fearful, terrible). Examples: The parting of the Red Sea must have been an awful sightThe mountains presented an awful barrier. In modern English, many people now use awesome instead of awful. Example:  Active volcanoes can be awesome and awful.

In the early 19th century, awful came to mean “very bad” or “extremely unpleasant”, then “exceedingly”. Examples: They had an awful experience while traveling. The area experienced an awful amount of rain in 24 hours.

Today, things get challenging and interesting when awful is used to modify a positive or good quality. Example: He was awfully good looking. She was awful nice. Why would qualities like “good looking” and “nice” be awful? Using the word like this has the feel of slang, so in good writing, except slang dialog, choose another word.

“awhile” versus “a while”

Awhile is an adverb (used to modify a verb), meaning “for a time”. Example: They lived in Seattle awhile, but then moved south. Note: It would be incorrect to say They lived in Seattle for awhile, but then moved south. This would literally read They lived in Seattle for for a time, but then moved south.

When used as two words, a while is a noun phrase, with the noun while meaning “an indeterminate length of time”. The noun phrase is often preceded by a preposition, such as for, in or ago. Examples: He went out for a while. I’ll be with you in a while. He went out a while ago.

“can” versus “may”

Here’s a cute example that happened to a fifth grader. A girl raised her hand and asked the teacher: Can I go to the bathroom? The teacher’s reply said it all: You ought to be able to. Can means “to be able to or to have the ability, power or skill to do something”, while may is used to express “a possibility, an opportunity, permission or a contingency” (e.g., It may rain this afternoon. I may go to the movies. Let me speak if I may.). So, the girl above should have asked: May I go to the bathroom?

Here’s another recently heard variation of this error. An interviewer addressed the following question to one of a group of people about to be interviewed (fictional name): John, I’ll start with you if I could. Since the interviewer is experienced, and since these people had already agreed to be interviewed, one would think that the interviewer had the ability (could is simply the past tense of can). The question being asked actually was for was polite permission to begin with John. Therefore, the correct sentence should have been: John, I’ll start with you if I may. Or:  I’ll start with you if I might, but that’s viewed as being a little weaker.

“criterion” versus “criteria”

A criterion is a “standard, rule or principle for judging, evaluating, testing, or criticizing someone or something”. Example: My criterion for “good food” is simply its taste. Criteria is simply the plural form. Example: There are five criteria used to determine the best in show. Criteria should not be used as a singular form, and criterions should be avoided. This is similar to the plural of radius (radii), which is not readiuses.

“farther” versus “further”

These two words have been used interchangeably for much of their histories, and often still are. However, careful writers and speakers use farther to refer to “observable measurable physical distances” (e.g., How much farther is it to grandma’s house?). The answer might be five miles or ten minutes. Further refers to “figurative distances”. Example: Team A was further ahead of Team B in the reading contest. We don’t know what that means, other than that Team A has read more books than Team B, but not measured in distance.

Here’s an easy way to remember this. The root word in farther (meaning “more far”) is far. The original meaning of further is “more advanced”, not referring to physical distances that can be observed or measured. It’s more abstract. Furthermore, further can be a synonym for moreover and additional.

Bottom line: If you’re unsure or can’t decide which word to use (and there are some cases where it can be confusing), choose further, because farther is usually restricted to physical distances.

“heighth” or “highth” versus “height”

There are many people who pronounce the word height (which has no ‘h’ at the end) as heighth. They’re confused by the fact that both of the other dimension words, length and width, do end in ‘h’. However, in spite of the apparent lack of symmetry, the word is not heighth. Don’t let this mispronunciation enter your writing as a misspelling.

“historic” versus “historical”

The words historic and historical are adjectives, and are close in meaning. Though they have different usages, their meanings overlap, and the two words are often used interchangeably, as in historic times or historical times, so people get them mixed them up.

Historic means:

  • “important or influential in history” (e.g., The historic first voyage to the moon. The treaty was an historic occasion. The bones were of historic significance.)
  • “well-known or famous in history” (e.g., an historic building or home, an historic battlefield, historic occasions, an historic treaty).

The Gutenberg Bible would be an historic book. However, it would be incorrect to say We sell historic replicas, unless the replicas are important to history.

Historical means:

  • “anything that existed or took place in history, whether regarded as important or not” (e.g., a study of the historical Moses, a minor historical character. It was an historical event.)
  • “pertaining or relating to, or characteristic of history” (e.g., historical records; historical documents — these would just be documents from the past; historical research; historical replicas — these items are from the past; but they’re probably not too important; historical occasion — an occasion in the past, though not necessarily an important occasion)
  • “based on, concerned with or reconstructed from something in the past” e.g., historical costumes, an historical reenactment of the battle, historical novels — books set in the past). Note that there’s nothing especially important about these books; if there were, they’d be historic books.

William Safire offered a way to remember the difference. Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic. Here’s a memory aid you can use. The suffix “ic” of historic and the word important both start with “i”, while the suffix “al” of historical and all in the past both start with “al”. Hence, something historic is important, while something historical is all in the past.

“a” or “an” before some words starting with “h”

The letter ‘h’ is usually pronounced (e.g., host, house) and sometimes it’s not (e.g., honor, hour). The pronunciation determines which indefinite article to use (a or an). When the ‘h’ is pronounced, it’s preceded by the article a (e.g., a hat, a heart). However, there are English words in which the ‘h’ is not pronounced. These words are often derived from other languages or dialects (e.g., Spanish or Cockney English). For example, the Spanish word for now is ahora, pronounced a’ora; and the Cockney pronunciation of the house is thee ‘ouse). The most common controversy is with the word history and its derivatives historic and historical. In times past, history would be written as an history and would be spoken as an ‘istory. Today, however, some people, write and say a history (with the ‘h’ pronounced).

“I” versus “me”

These two personal pronouns can be challenging. The following is incorrect: Jane and me went to the movies. The way to know this is to eliminate the other person’s name and see if the sentence still makes sense. If Jane is eliminated, you get: Me went to the movies, which is clearly wrong (I went to the movies). The corrected sentence is: Jane and I went to the movies. Here’s another example: John gave an apple to he and I. Eliminating the other person gives: John gave an apple to he. John gave an apple to I. Both wrong. The corrected sentence is: John gave an apple to him and me.

“insure” versus “ensure”

Insure means “compensation for damage, while ensure means “to make certain (assure)”. You buy life insurance, but you assure that the policy is written correctly.


Irregardless is actually a double negative. Regardless means “without regard”. ir-regardless would mean “without without regard” (clearly a double negative). Conclusion: Never use or write irregardless.

“kind” or “type”

One of the worst spoken and written errors these days are phrases like these kind or those kind. Examples: These kind of experiences are often long remembered. I love to see those kind of plays. Sometimes the word type or sort is used instead of kind. The error usually results when the writer is describing other examples of one particular thing he or she has just witnessed. Kind, type and sort are usually used in their singular form to describe “an individual member of a class or group or category that all share similar characteristics”. As such, the singular of these (this) or those (that) should be used. In the above examples, the corrected sentences are: Experiences such as (or like) these/those are often long remembered. I love to see that kind (type, sort) of play. Even better: I like plays such as (or like) this (or that, but not those).

(continued in Part 2)

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