12 Words Often Used Incorrectly in English and How to Get Them Right
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” —Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”
Many words have clear meanings and uses, which are difficult to confuse. You’d never use the word “cat” to refer to a “dog,” for example.
But there are other words which are not as simple to use—and words used incorrectly.
As an English learner, you’ve probably come across a few words that you mix up again and again.
Well, we have a secret for you: Even native speakers confuse words!
Just as there are common phrases which people say wrong, there are also some English words which people use incorrectly.
We’re going to take a close look at 12 of the most incorrectly used words here.
- 1. Literally
- 2. Factoid
- 3. Irregardless
- 4. Entitled
- 5. Poisonous/Venomous
- 6. Runners-up/Passers-by
- 7. Ironic
- 8. Infamous
- 9. Inflammable
- 10. Bemused
- 11. Infer/Imply
- 12. Good/Well
Wrong meaning: Figuratively, very. The word is often used for emphasis and as an exaggeration, as in “I’m literally dying of laughter.”
Right meaning: Actually, exactly, without exaggeration.
“Literally” is a weird word because somehow, in recent years, it has been used for literally the opposite of its definition. The word originally meant “in a literal manner or sense.” Such as in these examples:
There are literally millions of stars in the sky.
(Meaning: There are millions of stars in the sky.)
There is literally a snake in my bathroom. Please help!
(Meaning: There is a real snake in the bathroom.)
So back to that first example: you’re not “literally dying of laughter” unless you’re actually dying from laughing, which isn’t common–but it’s very common to hear a sentence like this said anyways.
Let’t take another example: “I’m so hungry, I could literally eat a horse.” Could you really? That’s quite a lot of meat! Still, this is another common phrase where the word literally is used incorrectly.
So, though the original definition may be the best, words change. The definition of “literally” has expanded and even dictionaries acknowledge this: “in effect, virtually—used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible.”
Wrong meaning: A small fact.
Right meaning: A false fact.
The word “factoid” was first used by journalist, author and activist Norman Mailer in 1973 to talk about a “fact” that is not, in fact, true. He wrote that factoids were “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”—that is, stuff that the media just makes up.
Today the word is used to refer to a “bite-sized” fact, a small quick fact or something that is repeated by so many people that it’s eventually assumed to be true. The -oid in factoid is a suffix (word ending) that means “resembling” or “like,” so factoid really means “fact-like.”
Wrong meaning: Regardless, without consideration of (or despite) the circumstances.
Right meaning: Even though this word is included in some dictionaries, it’s nonstandard and many people would recommend that you don’t use it, especially in formal speech and writing.
The phrase “regardless of” is used the same way as you would say “even though” or “in spite of.” For example:
Regardless of the definition being very clear, he still didn’t understand the word.
“Irregardless” is normally used to mean the same.
It was first used way back in the 1700s, possibly instead of the word “irrespective” (which does mean the same as “regardless,” but people rarely use it), or as a fusion of the words “irrespective” + “regardless.”
The “word” is used in speech to this day, even though it should mean the opposite because the prefix ir- and the suffix -less are both negative. That rare prefix and suffix combination actually makes the word a double negative, just like “I won’t not eat the last cupcake” means you totally will.
We think it’s confusing too, and that’s why it’s best to avoid this word!
Wrong meaning: The title of a book, TV show, movie or other work of art.
Right meaning: Having, or believing that you have, the right to something.
When you buy a house, you’re entitled to it—you legally have the right to live or rent out the house. You can also be entitled to your opinion, since you have the right to speak your mind. Sometimes people can act entitled, if they act like they deserve special treatment, like the Roy children in the TV show “Succession.”
A book, on the other hand, is never entitled, it’s just titled! People often misuse this word by saying, “The best movie in the world is entitled ‘Troll 2.’” This is not only untrue—it’s the incorrect usage of the word. Books, movies, TV shows and anything else that has a title are “titled.”
Wrong meaning: Something that will make you poisoned if you eat it, or if it bites or stings you.
Right meaning: Something that will poison you, but only if you eat it.
People often think the words “poisonous” and “venomous” mean the same thing. And they do both deal with poison, a substance that will make you sick or even kill you. The difference is in the way the poison is administered, or given:
- Poisonous is used for anything that will poison you when you ingest or eat it (like a toxic mushroom variety or actual poison).
- Venomous is used for anything that will poison you if it bites or stings you (like a snake or bee).
This is why murderers on TV shows use poison to kill their victims, they don’t use venom.
Another example is the pufferfish, the Japanese delicacy, which is a poisonous fish—it can kill you if you eat it (and yet many people do still eat it when it’s prepared very carefully by an experienced chef). A snake that can poison you, on the other hand, is venomous.
Wrong meaning: The meaning is usually correct here, but the plural form of the word is often wrong. People often incorrectly say these words’ plural forms as “runner-ups” and “passer-bys.”
Right meaning: The correct plural form of the words “runner-up” and “passer-by” are “runners-up” and “passers-by.”
Runners-up are people who did not win in a contest, but did well enough to deserve a mention. Passersby (or passers-by) are people who happened to be walking by some place.
Often, the words are misspelled by people writing “passer-bys” and “runner-ups.” The first word needs the plural s because the people are plural, not the second words “up” and “by,” which just help to describe the people.
Wrong meaning: Something unfortunate.
Right meaning: Something that’s funny, interesting or strange because it happens in a way that is opposite to what you’d expect.
“Ironic” is one word that no one seems to get right, even native speakers!
There are a few different kinds of irony, but the kind people usually mean when they use the word ironic is “situational irony.”
This is when something happens which is the opposite of what you’d expect, making the whole situation look comical or unusual. For example, you go on a diet and gain 20 pounds, or the fire station burns down. Irony can be funny, in a sad kind of way.
The infamous song “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette has some great examples of things that are unfortunate, but not actually ironic. For instance, rain on your wedding day is only ironic if you specifically chose that day because the forecast said it would be sunny.
Then again, maybe the joke is on us… it’s pretty ironic that a song about irony doesn’t actually have any.
Wrong meaning: Very famous.
Right meaning: Famous for a negative reason.
Speaking of infamous people and things, this word does not mean “very famous.” It actually refers to something or someone who is famous for all the wrong reasons.
Heroes are famous for their great deeds. Bank robbers, on the other hand, are infamous for their criminal deeds. Celebrities can be either, depending on how well they behave themselves (or don’t).
Wrong meaning: Not flammable.
Right meaning: Flammable.
This mistake is very common for a very good reason: It just makes sense! As we mentioned before, the prefix in- means “not,” so it would make sense for the word “inflammable” to mean “not flammable.” The problem, though, is that “inflammable” actually comes from the word “enflame.”
So what’s the difference between “flammable” and “inflammable”? Absolutely nothing. You can use either word to mean the exact same thing. As if that weren’t enough, you can also use “non-flammable.”
English can be weird sometimes! As comedian George Carlin put it, “Flammable… inflammable… non-inflammable. Why are there three of them? Either it flames or it doesn’t!”
Wrong meaning: Amused, in a detached kind of way.
Right meaning: Confused or bewildered.
“Amused” and “bemused” look very similar, so it makes sense that people have started using the word “bemused” to mean amused in a calm way.
What the word really means, though, is confused, puzzled or bewildered. It can sometimes also mean to be lost in thought.
So if you enjoy the silliness of the clown at your party, you are amused by him. If you didn’t invite any clowns to your party, you’re more likely bemused.
Wrong meaning: People sometimes think both words mean the same thing: to suggest something.
Right meaning: “Imply” does mean to suggest something, but “infer” means to figure something out that isn’t stated outright, often through context.
“Infer” and “imply” are connected in meaning, but they don’t have the same meaning. If you tell someone, “Wow this bag is really heavy for me to carry all alone,” you are implying that you want help. You’re not directly asking for help, but you’re hinting at it.
Whoever you’re talking to can infer from your statement that you want help carrying that heavy bag. Or they can respond that it doesn’t look that heavy, implying that you’re stuck carrying that bag by yourself.
Wrong meaning: “Well” and “good” mean the same thing: something that is positive.
Right meaning: The two words do have similar meanings, but usage is there this common error occurs: “well” can be an adverb, adjective, verb, noun or an interjection (Oh, well!), while “good” is just an adjective.
Many times, the words “well” and “good” are mixed up, but they are used in different ways:
- When the word “well” is an adverb, it describes how you do something.
For example, “I play basketball well” or “Taylor Swift sings really well.” It describes how I play or how Taylor sings, as “play” and “sing” are both verbs.
- When the word “well” is an adjective, it simply describes a noun.
For example, in the sentence “Mary feels well,” which refers back to Mary. Mary is described as feeling healthy, so well is an adjective.
- The word “good” can only be an adjective, which means its function is to describe a person, place or thing.
For example, “This is a good TV show,” “London is a good city,” or “He’s a good boy.” Saying “I feel good” would mean that you are feeling like a good person, which is possible, but probably not what you’re trying to say, which would be “I feel well,” or healthy, with nothing obviously wrong.
Learn the correct usage of all these English words, and you will feel more confident in your English skills. And remember that even native speakers trip up with these words often used incorrectly, so don’t fret if you make some mistakes at first.