Most commonly misused words in modern English

This should be an encouraging piece of news for anybody learning English right now – even native English speakers don’t know how to use the language properly. So don’t worry if you’re not getting it right perfectly every time – because the chances are the English-speaking person you’re talking to doesn’t get it right every time either!

A surprising number of English words are misused every day by English speakers – often those doing the talking don’t even realise that they’re using a word or phrase incorrectly. Let’s take a look at some of these misused words and phrases that crop up all the time in conversations in English.


lit•er•al•ly (lĭt′ər-ə-lē)

1. In a literal manner; word for word
2. In a literal or strict sense

Literally thousands of people use this word incorrectly every day. Now there’s an example of someone using this word correctly for a change. Bizarrely, this word is often used to mean the complete opposite of ‘literally’, which can lead to some rather funny results. “I’m literally starving to death!” Are you really? What people should really be saying is ‘figuratively’. Let’s look at some examples.

By far the worst culprits for this in the UK are sports presenters on TV and radio:

“He missed the goal by literally a million miles…”

“The cross to Rooney was literally served up on a plate…”

Obviously the striker in question didn’t literally manage to kick a ball a million miles away and the pass to Wayne Rooney wasn’t served up to him by a waiter – but these things did happen figuratively.


i•ron•ic (ī-rŏn′ĭk)

1. Poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended
2. Incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; an event or result marked by such incongruity
3. The use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
4. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.
5. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect

You’ll notice that there are several definitions of ‘ironic’ when you look in the dictionary and this is precisely why the widespread misuse of this word started – because even the dictionary couldn’t agree on one single meaning! A simple rule of thumb is to remember that when something that is contrary to what you expect, then it is ironic, for example, a traffic policeman who has his license suspended for failing to pay his parking ticket – you would expect him to pay his parking ticket, since he is the man who dishes out parking tickets every day.

Something is not ironic if it is simply a funny coincidence or it’s unfortunate, for example, “Isn’t it ironic that Paul Walker from the Fast and the Furious movies died in a car crash?” No, it’s not. It’s simply unfortunate.

People still debate the correct and incorrect use of the word ironic today, so much so that there are entire websites [insert] devoted to it.

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e•nor•mi•ty (ĭ-nôr′mĭ-tē)

1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness
2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage

Here’s one that even Presidents of the USA don’t get right. ‘Enormity’ actually means ‘extreme evil’, but because it sounds very much like the word ‘enormous’ meaning ‘huge’ or ‘very large’, it’s often used incorrectly to mean ‘enormousness’. Here’s a perfect example – after being elected, US President, George W Bush said that he “Couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation.” While many Republicans might disagree with his use of the word ‘enormity’ here, many Democrats might tend to agree with him!


ul•ti•mate (ŭl′tə-mĭt)

1. Being last in a series, process, or progression
2. Fundamental; elemental

This has to be one of the most often misused words on the internet. While the literal meaning is ‘the last in a list of items’ it is far more often used to mean ‘the best’. For example, do a Google search for ‘the ultimate cheeseburger’ and you’ll find over two million results – but we doubt very much that the last cheeseburger has already been made. This is a great example of a word that’s been misused so many times over the years that its meaning has now changed, and you will find definitions in more modern dictionaries that reflect this, such as:

a. Of the greatest possible size or significance; maximum
b. Representing or exhibiting the greatest possible development or sophistication
c. Utmost; extreme

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