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Misused, abused and overused words – are you a culprit?

On average, men speak 7,000 words a days and women speak a remarkable 20,000 a day[1]. Not only do these stats confirm the common belief that women are the chatterboxes of the species, it also shows that all human beings like to talk…rather a lot.

We use words for many different purposes. We talk to share our thoughts, communicate with our colleagues, tell our loved ones how we’re feeling. We talk to entertain; we tell jokes, we tell stories, we act.

With all this experience – it’s estimated that on average a person will speak 860,341,500 in a lifetime[2] – you’d think we’d all be experts on how to use our diverse vocabularies correctly, right? Wrong. Despite our propensity to talk, many of us are guilty of misusing common words. This might be because we’re simply repeating something we’ve heard or we’re trying, but failing, to sound clever.

The misused, abused and overused words epidemic is becoming so widespread, Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist, Steven Pinker, has dedicated a book, ‘The Sense of Style’, to the matter. An article by the Independent, looks at some of the words Pinker claims are commonly misused. Hands up if you’re guilty of any of these…

“I’m so full, I’m literally going to explode”

The word ‘literally’ has started to lose its meaning as we throw it around like there’s no tomorrow. Take the sentence above for example, there is no way someone would ‘literally’ explode from eating too much, therefore this sentence does not make sense.

Literally means ‘in actual fact’ and does not mean figuratively.

Radio 4 once ran a debate about the misuse of the word ‘literally’ after one listener spotted Nick Clegg’s blunder during one of his speeches[3]:

“It makes people so incredibly angry when you are getting up early in the morning, working really hard to try and do the right thing for your family and for your community, you are paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I’m aware, there isn’t another galaxy full of low-rate tax payers? A classic example of literally being incorrectly used!

“I was telling my friend about my weekend, but he was completely disinterested”

We’re probably all familiar with the annoying feeling of trying to talk to someone but they seem a million miles away. Yet, it would seem that we’re not all familiar with the correct term for it.

Although someone may not seem interested in what you have to say, it’s incorrect to say that they are disinterested. The correct word you’d be looking for would be uninterested, as disinterested means unbiased. For example, it’s important that court cases are resolved by disinterested judges.

“Oh isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”

‘It’s like rain on your wedding day; it’s a free ride when you’ve already paid’

Chances are you’ve sung along to these lyrics of Alanis Morissette’s well-known song, Ironic, about various supposedly ironic situations?

Have you ever considered though that the situations mentioned throughout the song are, ironically, not actually ironic?

According to Pinker, lots of people misuse the word ironic, due to not understanding it means uncannily incongruent rather than inconvenient. Alanis Morissette’s song would make more sense if she sung about how it would be unfortunate if it were to rain on your wedding day!

A correct example of irony would be if a traffic warden received a parking ticket for forgetting to pay for their own parking.

Our own pet-peeves

These are just a handful of examples which Pinker discussed in detail in his book and after a general discussion about them in the office, we opened up a conversation about our own pet-peeves when it comes to misused, abused and overused words.

Anna spoke about how people’s overuse of the word ‘amazing’ has diminished the word’s true meaning for her. For example, when you hear people describe their sandwiches as ‘amazing’, it’s hard to apply the same level of emotion to an object or event which genuinely ‘amazes’, e.g. a hearing aid which enables deaf people to hear again.

People mistaking specifically for pacifically is Darren’s most annoying malapropism and Gemma contributed her personal favourite mishap of people believing that ‘to be ignorant’ meant you were ignoring someone.  Now there’s an example of irony.

For me, it’s the overuse of the word ‘like’ which grinds my gears. Although the word is pleasant enough and useful in its place, e.g. ‘I like your dress’ or ‘I like your family…mostly’, its excessive and unnecessary use as a filler in conversation is irritating. For example, ‘I was like, he told me he was busy, but I was like confused because I didn’t think he had plans.’

What’s worse is that I’m probably guilty of overusing like and amazing myself. I also put my hands up to saying something is ironic instead of unfortunate and I’m sure I’ve claimed that “I literally jumped out my skin” when something frightened me in the past. So, despite speaking thousands of words a day, I think it’s important that we’re all aware of how we use and abuse the English language, so that we, like, don’t all literally end up speaking this way.