The Elements of Style, Chapter 4 – Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

In Other Words, Things You Shouldn’t Say

As an aspiring writer, I try to take some time on Sundays and either read or re-read books on writing, grammar and/or vocabulary.  In my opinion, shared by many writers, a book which belongs on every writer’s reading list is The Elements of Style. I am aware that, if I followed the book’s rules, the title should be in italics. However, there is no easy way to do that with an Amazon affiliate link.

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...
Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

I once heard a supervisor tell an employee “Now that you have gained some expedience you should constantly be improvising” (during a performance review).  The employee spent the rest of his career making up excuses to quickly end his days.  (Seriously, the quote is real, the second sentence is not.)

Chapter four of this text is a great list of misused words and phrases.  It is not my point to retype the entire book, I am going to cite a few examples. (The book’s chapter is over 25 pages long.)  How often do you misuse the following?

Aggravate, Irritate – If you wish to irritate some one, cut them.  If you want to aggravate them, rub salt into the wound.  Unless they were already upset before you sliced them, you didn’t aggravate them by cutting them.  Aggravate adds to an irritated state.

Allude – Please don’t substitute with elude.  Allude is an indirect reference.  Elude is to avoid.  Also, an allusion is not an illusion.

And/or –  This is one I am guilty of often, as in paragraph one of this article.  The book would suggest that I say, “books on writing, grammar and vocabulary or any combination of the three”.

Anyone, Anybody, Any one, Any body – As a single word, it would mean “any person”.  If you put a space in between, you have changed the meaning.  While anyone who works at the funeral home may be able to help you, you might not like what you get if you requested any body from the funeral home.

Can – As often as we were beat over the head with this in grammar school, I am still taken back when someone says, “Can I have some coffee?”.  The word you are looking for is may.

Care less – This is one I often break.  It should be “I couldn’t care less” and not “I could care less”.  Apparently, this was a British saying which made it state-side and was bastardized by us yanks in less than a decade.

Disinterested – The word is not the same as uninterested.  A judge should be disinterested regarding the parties in a trial.  Whether he or she is uninterested in the case is another matter.

Effect, Affect – The first is a result, the second means to influence or sway.  There is “cause and effect” but no “cause and affect”.

Farther, Further – They are not always interchangeable. Farther is used when discussing distance.  Further is regarding time or quantity.  (However, you can still travel further along a road.)

Flammable, Inflammable – I have had arguments over these two words.  They are not opposites (antonyms) but mean the same thing (synonyms).  If it does not burn, it is non-flammable.

Gratuitous – I often hear this word used as  synonym for gracious or generous.  It means undeserved.

Imply, Infer – These words are not synonyms.  If you imply, you are hinting at something.  If you infer, you are deriving something.  You could imply something by making a statement but you would have to hear a statement to infer from it.

Irregardless – So commonly abused it can be found in dictionaries. Technically, it is not a proper word. Use regardless which is not a double negative.

Loan, Lend – One is a noun, the other a verb. Therefore “can you lend me a five?” is correct.

VeryQuoting Mark Twain, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Well that should be a good enough list for you to see why I suggest every writer buy this book.  Also, if you don’t wish to buy the more recent fourth edition, you can find the original edition free online at The Gutenberg Project.

Thanks for reading and, if you have a misuse favorite or  book suggestion, leave us a note in the comments.