• 4-minute read
  • 13th March 2020

8 Words That May Not Mean What You Think!

In this post, we look at eight words that may not mean what you think! These terms are commonly misused, but avoiding such errors can help with the clarity of your writing. Let’s look at what these words really mean!

1. Literally

“Literally” is possibly the most misused word in the English language. The traditional definition of “literal” is “in the most basic sense.” So if we say:

I didn’t expect you to literally run over here!

It would imply the person actually did run over to meet us.

However, many people use “literally” to add emphasis to something that is not true. For example, if we’d watched a funny movie, we might say:

We were literally dying of laughter!

But that wouldn’t mean we were really at death’s door! It’s simply exaggeration to emphasise our amusement. This non-literal use of “literally” upsets some people, so you should usually avoid it in formal writing. But most dictionaries now list the non-literal sense as an informal definition.

2. Inflammable

The presence of “in-” at the start of a word often means “not,” such as in “inactive” or “inconsistent.” You’d thus be forgiven for thinking that an “inflammable material” is one that cannot catch fire. But the correct definition of “inflammable” is in fact “easily set on fire”:

It will soon be illegal to make tents out of inflammable fabric.  

If you want to describe something that can’t or won’t readily burn, you should use “non-flammable.” We think this is one worth remembering!

3. Dilemma

The word “dilemma” is often confused with “problem.” Originally, though, a “dilemma” was specifically a choice between two undesirable outcomes:

I could see his dilemma: he needed the money, but the job sounded awful.

Like with “literally,” many dictionaries now include the use of “dilemma” to refer to any problem, regardless of how many outcomes there may be. But you are better off sticking to the original meaning of this word in formal writing!

4. Ironic

“Ironic” is often thought to mean “coincidental.” However, the word actually means something that is contrary to what is expected, appropriate, or fitting:

Ironically, the Bible is the most shoplifted book in the world.

“Irony” also has other meanings as a stylistic device (e.g., dramatic irony).

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5. Nonplussed

Many people think “nonplussed” means “unconcerned” or “unimpressed.” However, it actually means “so confused that you’re unsure how to react”:

Sandra was nonplussed by the lecturer’s question and could not answer.

Here, Sandra is not unconcerned by the question; she’s confused by it!

Nevertheless, the “unconcerned” use of this term has gained some acceptance as an informal definition, especially in American English. But in formal writing, “nonplussed” should always mean “perplexed”!

6. Enervate

As it is not unlike “energize” or “enthuse,” it would be easy to think “enervate” has a similar meaning. But this word actually means “sap or weaken”:

We were enervated by the long drive home.

Thus, this term means quite the opposite of what many people think!

7. Bemused

Because it looks similar to “amused,” some assume “bemused” has a similar definition. But rather than meaning “entertained,” “bemused” means confused:

A misplaced comma can leave a reader bemused.

You could be both “amused” and “bemused” at the same time if something was funny and bewildering, but make sure not to confuse the two!

8. Pulchritudinous

Some consider “pulchritudinous” an ugly sounding word, so they assume it refers to something ugly, too. In fact, “pulchritudinous” means “beautiful”:

The pulchritudinous waiter left Sam feeling breathless.

We’re not sure telling your loved one they’re “pulchritudinous” would go down well, though. Unless you’re dating a proofreader, of course, in which case they’d probably appreciate the accurate usage.

Proofreading and Vocabulary

With so many confusing words in English, it’s no surprise some people misuse terms like those above. So if you want to be sure you always use the right words in the right places, why not submit a document today?

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