According to Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, many of us have most likely been misusing a lot more words and phrases than we’d like to think.
In his book “The Sense of Style,” which has been called a 21st century “Strunk and White,” Pinker addresses several of the most common usage mistakes.
Here are a few examples from his book, which lists 58 in total:
Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise 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.
Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”
Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”
Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean “enormousness.” [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: “The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears.” / “The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.”
Hung means “suspended.” It does not mean “suspended from the neck until dead.” Correct: “I hung the picture on my wall.” / “The prisoner was hanged.”
Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to “recline”; lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to “set down”; lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to “fib.” Correct: “He lies on the couch all day.” / “He lays a book upon the table.” / “He lies about what he does.”
Verbal means “in linguistic form.” It does not mean “oral” or “spoken.” Correct: “Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.”
Have you ever caught yourself using these words or phrases incorrectly?