Graeme −> Language −> Structure −> Words −> Wrong word 

Wrongness is "a criteria" for selecting words in this section.  I never use the wrong word because I'm "an alumni" of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  This page wouldn't have the right affect on you if I used the wrong word, now, would it?  I hope my erudite word usage effects your opinion of me in a positive way!

Contents of this page:

Mixing up singular / plural
"literally" used to mean figuratively, or as an intensifier
Latin initials e.g. and i.e.
Word mixups:
   infer / imply
   laudable / laudatory
   finite / nonzero
   less / fewer
   light-year / year
   nauseous / nauseated
   "which" (with a comma) vs. "that" (without a comma)
   toe the line / tow the line
Hard-to-implement grammatical rules
   not ending a sentence with a preposition
   prevent
   hopefully
pleonasm: the use of more words than necessary
wellerism: a well-known expression followed by a facetious sequel
spoonerism: transposition of usually initial sounds of two words
catachresis: wrong word for the context, or a forced figure of speech
hysteron proteron: listing events out of time order
synathroesmus: the use of many adjectives
epenthesis: insertion of a sound in the middle of a word
wrong number of negatives

wrong singular / plural -- I mentioned "alumni", often used in the singular.  There's no such word as oxymorons.  The plural is oxymora.  

literally / figuratively -- I've heard people say things like "he was moving so fast he was literally on fire!"  I suppose it just wouldn't sound right to say "he was moving so fast he was figuratively on fire!"  The word "literally" is used as an intensifier.  The use of a wrong word could be made less blatant in this example by substituting "really" for "literally" but even "really" is a wrong word in this context.   For some reason it's more acceptable as an intensifier, though.

e.g. / i.e. -- Foreign languages are tricky, especially dead ones, i.e. Latin.   AAARRGH!

infer / imply -- What are you trying to infer?  (I don't know, but I'm not having much luck so it's back to "Inference School" for me!)

laudable / laudatory are another pair of words on opposite sides of a fence.  A laudatory statement expresses praise for a laudable act.

finite / nonzero -- there is a small but finite percentage of the population that has no clue about numbers.

less / fewer -- this one doesn't bug me much, but I know it bugs some people.   Once I was in a supermarket, and I saw a sign that read "10 items or fewer ".  Amazing.

"That's old news," people often say, "it happened light-years ago."  Here's a news flash: light-years is a measure of distance, not time!

I was just about to insist that nauseous can properly be used only to mean "causing nausea" (as in nauseous fumes) and that it is wrong to use nauseous to mean "affected with nausea" (as in these fumes are making me nauseous) -- for that, I was about to say, you should use the word nauseated.  To make sure, I looked up nauseous.  According to the dictionary, I'm mistaken.  It goes on to say current evidence shows these facts: nauseous is most frequently used to mean physically affected with nausea, usually after a linking verb such as feel or become; figurative use is quite a bit less frequent. Use of nauseous in sense 1 (causing nausea) is much more often figurative than literal, and this use appears to be losing ground to nauseating. Nauseated, while not rare, is less common than nauseous in sense 2 (affected with nausea).  Doesn't it make you want to puke?

Using "which" (with a comma) vs. "that" (without a comma)

It seems to me just plain obvious that "which" describes the members of a class while "that" restricts the membership of a class.

Example:
The computers, which have DVD drives, need frequent rebooting.

--OR--

The computers that have DVD drives need frequent rebooting.

The first uses "which" to describe the computers. The second uses "that" to restrict the class under consideration to just those computers that have DVD players, implying that DVD players somehow contribute to the computers' instability.

Yet, can you believe I once had to explain this distinction to a lawyer who had drafted a contract for me to sign? I refused to sign it until he fixed the grammatical errors in it, which, in this case, substantially obscured the meaning of some clauses!

"Tow" the line -- the expression is "toe" the line.

Hard-to-implement grammatical rules

There are some things you just can't say "correctly" without going to a lot of trouble.  For example, when Winston Churchill was criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition he replied,  "This grammatical rule is something up with which I will not put!"  Here are some more cases:

Jenna Glatzer, editor of www.absolutewrite.com especially enjoys the following discussion of the word, "prevent":

"The brake is used to prevent the car from going through the red light."   Well everyone knows you don't prevent something from doing something.  You prevent something, period.  So what do you prevent by using the brake?  You might be tempted to say the thing you prevent is "the car going through the red light".  But that makes it seem you're preventing the car while the car happens to be going through the red light.  To make it clear you're preventing the going and not the car you could say you're preventing the "car's going through the red light".  By using the possessive you make "going" the only possible thing to be prevented.  However if you were to say it instead of write it, it would sound like the brake prevents "cars going through the red light", which is even worse.  Oh well, the light's green by now...  Hit it!

Hopefully -- often people use the word to mean "the speaker (or writer) hopes" as in "Hopefully, you will enjoy this page."   Do you really expect the person to enjoy the page while filled with hope?!  Of course not!

pleonasm: the use of more words than necessary, e.g. true facts.

wellerism: an expression of comparison comprising a usually well-known quotation followed by a facetious sequel, named for Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's good-natured servant in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.  He and his father were fond of following well-known sayings or phrases with humorous or punning conclusions.  For example, "'It all comes back to me now', said the Captain as he spat into the wind.", and "'I see,' said the blind man."

spoonerism: a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words, named for William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), an English clergyman & educator.  Examples:  tons of soil for sons of toil, blushing crow for crushing blow, fart smeller for smart feller.  One I particularly like is "one swell foop" for one fell swoop, partly because although (or because) foop isn't a word, it just sounds funny, and also because "fell" as an adjective, meaning cruel or brutal, isn't often used outside of this expression.

catachresis: 1: use of the wrong word for the context (The paper printed a correction for the previous day's catachresis: dubbing a local artist-philanthropist a "socialist" when they meant "socialite."), or 2: use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech

Merriam-Webster says: 
As you might have guessed, "catachresis" is a word favored by grammarians. It can be employed as a fancy label of disparagement for whatever uses the grammarian finds unacceptable. Thus could Henry Fowler, in the 1920s, call "mutual" in "our mutual friend" a catachresis. (Fowler preferred "common," but "mutual" does have an established sense which is correct in that context.) More often, "catachresis" is used for an unintentional misuse and is very close in meaning to "malapropism," which usually refers to an unintentionally humorous misuse of a word. "Catachresis" has been used to describe (or decry) misuses of words since at least 1550. The word comes to us by way of Latin from the Greek noun "katachrēsis," which means "misuse." 

hysteron proteron: a figure of speech in which the word that should come last is placed first.  Examples: putting on your "shoes and socks".  "Lock and load", whereas a bolt-action rifle must be loaded first, then locked.

synathroesmus: the use of a large number of adjectives.  For example, "He's a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nosed peacock" or better yet, this diatribe written by John Ruskin:

"Of all the bete, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on the human stage, that thing last night beat - as far as the story and acting went - and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsyturviest, tuneless, scrannelpipiest - tongs and boniest - doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, as far as its sound went."

epenthesis: the insertion or development of a sound or letter in the body of a word.

This comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Example sentence:
Professor Seeles explained that epenthesis is the process of adding an extra sound or syllable to a word, as when a child adds a "b" to "family" and says "FAM-blee." 

Did you know?
If you say "athlete" as "ath-a-lete," you've committed epenthesis. Some people consider the pronunciation to be unacceptable, but there's a perfectly good reason why it occurs; epenthesis is simply a natural way to break up an awkward cluster of consonants. It's easier for some people to say "athlete" as three syllables instead of two, just as it's easier for some to insert a "b" sound into "cummerbund," pronouncing that word as "cum-ber-bund." Epenthesis has even contributed to the evolution of recognized spelling variants, giving us such options as "cumberbund" and "sherbert" (for "sherbet"). The word "epenthesis" came to us by way of Late Latin from the Greek verb "epentithenai," which means "to insert a letter."

WRONG NUMBER OF NEGATIVES

Sometimes people throw in an extra negative -- "This ain't no disco" -- while other times people leave out the negative when there should be one -- "I could care less".  Here are some more examples:

"Irregardless"

OVERLY "CORRECT" ENGLISH and MISUNDERSTOOD WORDS

Here are examples in which people trip all over themselves trying to be correct.

In the book about FrontPage98, I read that a certain activity should take "five minutes or fewer".

That sort of idiocy would never come from "you or I".

People seem to think a guarantee is the same as a promise, or even stronger than a promise -- "I not only promise this vacuum cleaner will work, I guarantee it!"  In fact this guarantee is not a promise that the vacuum cleaner will work, but rather a promise that if it doesn't work that there will be some reparation.   As a practical matter, if 90% of the vacuum cleaners work, and the other 10% don't work, the manufacturer can in good conscience offer a guarantee that the one you buy will work knowing it will have to replace one in ten (or 1 in 9 if it guarantees the replacements, too) as a cost of doing business.   But the manufacturer can't in good conscience promise that your vacuum cleaner will work because it will have to break that promise many times.

OLD NAMES FOR MODERN THINGS

Why do we "dial" phones?  There's no dial on a phone any more.   When touch-tone phones first came out I remember hearing TV commercials in which the announcer would say "dial or punch this number..."  Eventually the copy-writers began to realize that people with the new-fangled phones still knew how to dial a number!

Groups of TV stations that share some common programming are called a "Network" because many years ago (before satellites) such stations would be connected to one another by wires.  Now the word is even used for signals that are broadcast from a single satellite, such as the CNN, the Cable News "Network".

Everyone uses email, right?  So you know you should "CC" people who will get a copy of the email, but it's not "To" them.  But did you know CC stands for Carbon Copy?  What is this Carbon, anyway?   Its atomic number is 6, atomic weight 12, it exists in living things, but what does it have to do with copying people on emails? [Thanks, Fred Rexroad, for writing me that CC now stands for "Courtesy Copy"]

When someone says something over and over and over and over we call it a "Broken Record".  Apparently, a record was some kind of ancient storage device, like a CD, and breaking it caused it to repeat itself.

NON-PARALLEL SUFFIXES

Oh, I really didn't know what to call this category.  See if you can come up with a better name, and email me if you can.  The idea for this category started when I heard a story on the radio about the Indonesian island of Bali and the "Balinese" who live there.  OK, I understand that the people who live in China are "Chinese" -- you replace the -na with -nese.  So shouldn't you replace -li with -lise to make Balise?  Or, as in Italy, replace the -ly sound with lians to make Balians?  For that matter, why are Virginians Virginians, but New Yorkians are called New Yorkers?  (And, colloquially, people from New Jersey are called "Jerseyites" and derisively, their neighbors to the south are called Delawienies.  But I think I've digressed.)  

Another example of non-parallel suffixes: Chocoholic.  A person addicted to alcohol is an -- you got it -- alcoholic.  Start with the drug, add "-ic", and you've got the addict.  So a person addicted to chocolate should be a chocolatic, which would be pronounced choc-o-LAT-ic, don't you think?  What was in the mind of the person who coined this word?  (And for that matter, what was in the minds of all the people who mindlessly repeat it?)  Did he think "chocolate" couldn't be considered addictive, so he imagined a substance, "chocohol", the essence of the evil in chocolate, perhaps, to which people become addicted?

Something pertaining to a "doctor", such as the thesis one writes to become one, is called "doctoral".  So you would think that something pertaining to a "director" would be "directoral".  But you would be wrong -- the director's first movie is called his "directorial" debut.  No wonder school children (and many adults who never learned any better) refer to a particular body of electors as the "Electorial College".  

We have "width" and "depth", so why not "heighth"?

GAFFES

"This is Preservation Month. I appreciate preservation. It's what you do when you run for president. You gotta preserve."óGeorge W. Bush, Speaking during "Perseverance Month" at Fairgrounds Elementary School in Nashua, N.H. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 28, 2000

(Click for more George W. Bushisms)

 

Internet References

Urban Dictionary: soz 

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