Misused Words—Part 2

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).


What’s wrong with these sentences? None of his toys were new. None of the people were moving. The problem is with the verb were, which is plural. In both sentences, the subject is none, not toys or people. This is a common mistake in both writing and speaking. The word none is actually a contraction of no one or not one. Replacing the word none in the sentences above with the definition would make them clearly wrong: Not one of his toys were new. Not one of the people were moving. So, the corrected sentences are: None of his toys was new. None of the people was moving.

“one of the most unique”, “very unique”, “most unique”, and the like

Unique means “one of a kind, with no like or equal”. So how can something described as unique have modifiers like very, most, etc. Imagine saying They were the five most unique cars in the world. That’s speaking and writing nonsense. They may be the five rarest cars in the world.

“pretty” used as “very”, and the like

Pretty, as an adjective, means “beautiful” or “pleasant”. However, one often hears it used as an adverb, as in That’s pretty good or That’s pretty ugly. In this usage, the meanings range from “fairly” or “moderately” to “very” or “quite”. One common example is: He or she earns a pretty penny (meaning “a lot of money”). However, these latter uses are considered as informal in both speech and writing, and should be used cautiously.

“resume” versus “reassume”

Resume means “continue” or “begin again”. Example: After each interruption, they would resume their trip. The word originally meant “take up again” or “regain”.

Reassume means “take” or adopt something again”. Example: As agreed, the two of them would reassume the title of co-presidents. Compare this to: The two of them then resumed the office of co-president.

“that” versus “which”

When used as a pronoun, it’s often confusing to know whether to use that or which.

Following are some guidelines for using that:

  1. Use that when it’s the subject or object of a relative clause; especially true when the clause defines or restricts the previous clause or phrase. Example: The car that he owned was a station wagon. Comment: He owned that particular kind of car.
  2. Use that when it’s the object of a preposition, when the preposition is at the end of a relative clause. Example: The car that I was talking about. Comment: I was talking that car.
  3. Use that should when the following clause or phrase is essential to the complete meaning of the sentence. Example: The tower that stands at the entrance to the city is well defended. Comment: The tower being referred to is specific — it’s the tower that’s at the entrance to the city, not some other tower. And note that there’s no comma after the word tower in the sentence, which would reduce the importance of the modifying phrase.

Even though some people use the word that to refer to people (e.g., The man that came to dinner behaved very strangely), it’s better to reserve that for objects and animals. The word who or whom is more appropriate (e.g., The man who came to dinner behaved very strangely).

Following are some guidelines for using that:

  1. Use which when the following clause or phrase is not essential to the complete meaning of the sentence. Example: The tower, which was painted white, guarded the entrance to the city). Comment: In this sentence, the fact that the tower was painted white is of no consequence to the main idea — that it guarded the entrance to the city. Therefore, the non-essential phrase is set off by commas, and if left out, would not change the essential value or importance of the sentence.
  2. It’s important to point out that which should only be applied to objects and animals, never to people. For the latter application, the word who (or whom) should be used (e.g., The guard, who was very tall, intimidated all visitors).

One final thought on the use of the words that and which. They’re often mistakenly used when the subject or object is a plural noun (e.g., people, team (of people), population (of people)). Following are some incorrect and corrected sentences. The people that (use who) stormed the building should have known better. The people, which (use who) should have known better, stormed the building. The team who (use that) won the game was considered to be down and out. The team, who were (use which was) considered to be down and out, won the game.

“toward” versus “towards”

Both words mean “in the direction of”, and both are correct. However, in American English, toward is more common, while towards is used more in British English. To get to the root of the matter, literally, the second syllable, -ward, denotes direction in space or time, as indicated by the first syllable. Thus, we have seaward (“in the direction of the sea”), forward (“in the direction of the front or ahead”), backward (“in the direction of the rear”), afterward (“in the direction of after, i.e., later). Based in its definition, towards would imply going in multiple directions to some place. As final evidence, the older version of both words is toweard (with no s). Side-note: The same problem exists with anyway versus anyways (which is a non-standard form).

“was” versus “were” (subjunctive mood)

An unfortunately common error, both in speech and writing, is the use of the singular past tense of the verb to be (was), instead of the correct subjunctive mood (were). For example, in Fiddler on the Roof, the song lyric is not “If I was a rich man…”, it’s “If I were a rich man…”.  And in The Wizard of Oz, the Lion doesn’t sing “If I was king of the forest…”, he sings “If I were king of the forest…”.

The subjunctive form of verbs is typically used to express hypothetical action (or action that has yet to occur) or a condition contrary to fact (or has yet to occur). These include emotions, possibility, subjectivity, supposition, doubt, wishing, hoping, judgment, opinion, demand, statements of necessity, and recommendation. The subjunctive is also used after verbs such as: propose, ask, request, suggest, recommend, insist, command, demand — followed by the word that (e.g., The boss suggests that you be on time for the meeting). It’s also used after expressions such as: it’s desirable, essential, important, necessary, vital — followed by the word that (e.g., It’s essential that you be at the session.)

The structure of the subjunctive is simple:

  1. Present tense of the verb — The subjunctive is the same as the infinitive without the word to.

Examples: Will all representatives please take [to take] a seat. It’s important that we vote [to vote] on that recommendation. The committee recommended that he [should] join [to join] the association. It would be wonderful if she could walk [to walk]. The doctor said it’s critical that he walk [to walk; not walks] every day. It’s very important that you be [to be] on time. It’s important that only fresh ingredients be [to be; not are] used.

b. Past tense of the verb — The subjunctive only affects the verb to be, which is irregular, and causes the most problems. Where a non-subjunctive sentence might use was or were, a subjunctive sentence always uses were.

Examples: If I were [not was] you, I’d tell the truth. I wish I were [not was] taller. If our home were [not was] closer to the city, we’d go into town more often. His explanation, as it were [not was], sounded more like a lie.

There are also a number of common expressions that use the subjunctive. For example: So be it. Heaven help us! Heaven forbid! God bless America! God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Be that as it may, Come what may.

“went” versus “gone”

This error is made out of ignorance, and to the trained ear, it sounds terrible. Here are some examples: You should have went for it. I wish we had went to the movies instead. It’s as if these speakers never heard of the word gone. First of all, went, as the past tense of go, does not have an auxiliary verb in front (more on this below). Examples: He went home. They went to the movies. I wonder where the summer went.

On the other hand, gone, which is the past participle of go, must have an auxiliary verb in front. Auxiliary verbs include have, has, had, be, am, is, are, was, were, or one of their contractions. Examples: I’ve gone fishing. He has left. She’s gone home. By the time I got there, he’d gone. She was gone, and could not be found. I got home in the late Fall, and by then the leaves were gone.

“where … at” and “where to”

The following is wrong: Where’s the car at? Where means “at what place”. Since where already has a preposition built in (at), there’s no need to add another one. So, the corrected sentence is: Where’s the car? Here’s another incorrect sentence: Where are we going to? Where means “to what place”. The corrected sentence is: Where are we going?


Many more words could have been added, but hopefully, you get the idea. The English language is loaded with pitfalls like the words above, and as a writer, you need to exercise great care to make sure that you communicate your message as professionally as possible.

Copyright © 2016 by Affordable Editing Services

Share This:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: