In his latest book, The Sense of Style, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker sets out to create a new English stylebook that celebrates the language's fluidity while still striving for clarity — an anti-authoritarian, "evidence-based" manifesto for clear and vivid communications.
Pinker's book enumerates 58 commonly "misused" phrases — misused in the sense that the words are widely understood to mean something other than what the writer/speaker intends, though in many cases ("begs the question") I'd argue that the meaning has shifted for the majority of English speakers.
But there's no denying the smug satisfaction of reading through the list of 58 pitfalls and tallying up all the ones that you never get wrong! Below, some of the words that I find myself pausing before using because I'm sure I'm about to get it wrong:
• Begs the question means assumes what it should be proving and does not mean raises the question.
Correct: "When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting 'German quality,' but that just begs the question."
• Dichotomy means two mutually exclusive alternatives and does not mean difference or discrepancy.
Correct: There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers. / There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.
• Fortuitous means coincidental or unplanned and does not mean fortunate.
Correct: Running into my old friend was fortuitous. / It was fortunate that I had a good amount of savings after losing my job.
• Fulsome means unctuous or excessively or insincerely complimentary and does not mean full or copious.
Correct: She didn't believe his fulsome love letter. / The bass guitar had a full sound.
• Meretricious means tawdry or offensively insincere and does not mean meritorious.
Correct: We rolled our eyes at the meretricious speech. / The city applauded the meritorious mayor.
• Nonplussed means stunned, bewildered and does not mean bored, unimpressed.
Correct: "The market crash left the experts nonplussed." / "His market pitch left the investors unimpressed."
• Proscribe means to condemn, to forbid and does not mean to prescribe, to recommend, to direct.
Correct: The policy proscribed employees from drinking at work. / The doctor prescribed an antibiotic.
• An effect means an influence; to effect means to put into effect; to affect means either to influence or to fake.
Correct: They had a big effect on my style. / The law effected changes at the school. / They affected my style. / He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century [Steven Pinker/Viking]
The 58 most commonly misused words and phrases
[Richard Feloni/Business Insider]
(Image: Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Literaturherbst, G ambrus, CC-BY)