“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
—Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”
Many words have clear meanings which are difficult to confuse.
You’ll never use the word “cat” to refer to a “dog,” for example.
But there are other words which are not as simple to use.
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 those words today.
You might be wondering how it’s even possible that native speakers would say these words wrong. So let’s begin by looking at why this is.
English Words Are Constantly Changing
The way we pronounce, spell and use words is constantly changing.
Take the word “awful,” for example. “Awful” is the combination of the words “awe” (a feeling of inspiration or wonder) and the word “full” (as in, the opposite of “empty”). Something awful used to be something that fills you with awe or wonder. It could also mean something that fills you with fear. Over the years, though, that second definition became the one that stuck. So now the dictionary definition is “very bad or unpleasant.”
Thanks to the internet, the English language is changing even faster than ever. People use words incorrectly all the time, but now they often see others online using the same word in the same (incorrect) way.
Because of that, some of these words will either be used correctly over time, or their misuse will turn into the new definition. It’s already happening to some words on our list, like the word “literally.” Some dictionaries are starting to include the “wrong” usage of the word as one possible correct way to use it!
Until all these words change meaning, though, it’s important to understand their current correct meanings.
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12 English Words That People Say and Use Wrong
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 actually means something exact or precise. For example:
There are literally millions of stars in the sky.
( = There are millions of stars in the sky.)
There is literally a snake in my bathroom. Please help!
( = There is a real snake in the bathroom.)
You are not “literally dying of laughter” unless you are actually dying. In extreme situations, you might be so hungry you could literally eat a horse. (But for the sake of any horses around you, we hope not!)
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 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 very nonstandard and we really recommend you don’t use it.
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 (since the prefix ir- and the suffix -less are both negative). That makes it 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, etc.
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 own 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.
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 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 (given):
- Poisonous is used for anything that will poison you when you ingest (eat) it
- Venomous is used for anything that will poison you if it bites you.
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!). A snake that can poison you, on the other hand, is venomous. Unless you bite it first, we guess.
6. Runners-up, Passers-by
Wrong meaning: The meaning is usually correct here, it’s the word itself that’s wrong—people often incorrectly say “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.” (Note: “passerby” and “passersby,” without the hyphen, are also correct spellings.)
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 hyphen ( – ) is actually not necessary, which looks even weirder: “passersby” is the plural of “passerby.” This is because the people are plural, not the second word (which just helps 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 “Isn’t It 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 flams 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 are more likely bemused.
11. Infer, Imply
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.
“Infer” and “imply” are connected in meaning, but they are not the same thing. 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.
12. Good, Well
Wrong meaning: “Well” and “good” mean the same thing, something that is positive.
Right meaning: The two words do have similar meanings, but “well” can be an adverb, an adjective, a verb, a noun or an interjection (Oh, well!), while “good” is just an adjective.
Many times, the words “well” and “good” are mixed up.
They can indeed have the same meaning sometimes: Something that is right or satisfactory, 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, and “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,” our word 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.
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 get many of these words wrong!