Three Words We’ve Been Using Wrongly

There are, of course, far more than three offenders when it comes to words that frequently get misused in everyday conversation or writing. However, this post would become unreadable if I were to list every single one of them (some of which I am guilty of). Instead, I have chosen three words that fulfil each of these three criteria:

– It is commonly misused.

– I am guilty of misusing this word.

– It should never have been misused in the first place.

1. You mean, we’ve been misusing this word the whole time? – Occasionally

This is a commonly misused word. Many people think that “occasionally” should mean “rarely”. We see this in everyday sentences such as

A) Mr. Grouch is a recluse. Occasionally, he’d grunt a “hello” if you pester him, but don’t expect him to be cordial.

B) The park has been desolate for many years. I have occasionally seen a photographer or two loitering around the spot, though.

In both instances, we think of the word as “on a rare occasion”. In fact, it means “at infrequent intervals” or “every now and then”.

2. Guilty as charged – exponential

A piece of mathematical jargon that found its way into everyday usage, “exponential” retains its mathematical meaning of referring to an increase in the rate of growth (think acceleration). Apart from yours truly, the business world is also one of the most frequent offenders. Look at the two sentences and see if you can spot the erroneous usage:

A) Gaggle Inc. is set to grow exponentially after acquiring Broogle and Bracebook last month. In fact, they have been experiencing rapid growth ever since Michael Max took over as CEO three years ago.

B) The cost of housing is rising at an exponential rate, prompting citizens to scrutinise housing policies.

The answer is (B); The word is misused when talking about change rather than the rate at which things are changing.

3. We’ve got to literally stop misusing this word.

Literally. You see it in print and probably even use it yourself. There are two ways in which you can misuse the word and methinks that’s two too many:

A) As a pointless adverb, such as “I literally could not believe my eyes”.

Adverbs are not your friends. More often than not they clutter prose by providing redundant information. What’s wrong with saying “I couldn’t believe my eyes”? There is no loss in information and more importantly, there isn’t anything of value added by “literally” either.

B) As a rhetorical device for exaggeration, such as “That teacher was hilarious! I laughed so hard I literally peed my pants!” *cue laughter from your friends*

What you mean to say is “figurative”, of course. The sentence above is taken to mean that a teacher was so funny you actually ended up wetting your pants. I don’t think continuing to laugh when one stinks of waste is socially appropriate, nor is it what anyone would literally do under those circumstances, but perhaps times have changed.

Remember, literally means “actually”. Unless you actually did whatever you said you did (wetting pants or otherwise), do not affix this adverb. English teachers worldwide will thank you for it.