Grammar Matters

Commonly misused words and phrases

Rate this Entry
I thought I'd take a break from strictly writing about grammar, and post about something else that is dear to my heart: word usage and common misuses of words and phrases. Here is a list of some of the ones I hear and read most often.

Gild the lily - This means to embellish something that does not need it, thereby ruining it. It does not mean to make something better; the idiom for that would be something like "the icing on the cake" (which is a cliché, however, so you might want to avoid it too). The phrase's origin is in the following lines from Shakespeare's King John:

"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,/To throw a perfume on the violet,/To smooth the ice, or add another hue/Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light/To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,/Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Beg the question - This means to engage in circular reasoning. It does not mean to raise questions or issues related to a current topic or discussion.

Incorrect: The city workers are on strike, which begs the question, who will pick up the garbage?

Correct: My philosophy paper was graded a D because my arguments begged the question.

Literally - People often use "literally" for emphasis or for "figuratively". Though it is somewhat neat that a word can come to encompass both its original meaning and its opposite, it's still wrong. It can also cause ambiguity when the intended sense of "literally" is not clear from the context.

Incorrect: The baby literally screamed her head off all night.

Correct: I have literally three dollars to my name.

The second statement is ambiguous if two meanings can be accepted for the word "literally".

Peak/peek/pique - These homophones confuse many people. Recently I read a children's novel that used "peaked" instead of "peeked": professional copy editors make the mistake, so don't feel bad if you do too.

A darkly attractive man piqued my interest.
When saw me peeking, he said his name was Dracula.
I visited his castle on the peak of a hill.
After our liaison, I feel a little peaked.

Irony - This is like the misuse of "literally" in that it is used in two opposing ways (not counting its use as a literary term). Whensomething is ironic, its surface and its subtext are contradictory, or it has an effect that is opposite to its intended outcome.

Consider the following quote: "One of the amazing ironies of the situation was that Stephen Hawking happened to be studying theoretical physics, one of the very few jobs for which his mind was the only real tool he needed." (Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science by Michael White and John Gribbin)

Stephen Hawking has motor neuron disease, which renders him immobile and confined to a wheelchair. It's not ironic that his post-grad studies didn't require mobility; indeed, the nature of his studies was compatible with his physical limitations (e.g., as opposed to if he'd studied medicine, architecture, or chemistry).

Lay/lie - "Lay" is the past tense of "lie", in the sense of the state of repose. Lie is an intransitive verb and lay is a transitive verb. (More on those verbs in a later post, perhaps.)

An example of the intransitive verb is "I am lying on the couch." It is incorrect to say "I am laying on the couch."

An example of the transitive verb in the present tense is "He is laying the book on the table." The sentence in the past tense is "He lay the book on the table."

Dethaw (twigged by a comment from hazius on my previous post on this blog) - No matter what you think it means, there is no such word as dethaw!

If you want steaks for dinner, take them out of the freezer and thaw them in the fridge.
(Should you change your mind, return them to the freezer to re-freeze them.)

Penultimate - It means second-last; it is not another word for ultimate or last. The word for third-last is antepenultimate.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book in the series.

Atypical - Do not use this as another word for typical. The first time I heard someone do this, he kept using "typical" and "atypical" interchangeably--much to my initial confusion. The a- prefix comes from the Greek for "not". Other words with the a- prefix include asymmetrical, asexual, anaemic, and amoral.