So, you wanna be a wordsmith?

…then you’d best use words the way they’re meant to be used. I know I’ve misused words in the past. Like way too many writers, I get the past tense of lie and lay, laid and lain confused and have to look them up several times a year. (The web pages I use greet me with, “Oh good grief, you again?”)

I’ve compiled a list of some of the words my students have managed to misuse. While the great majority don’t stray into the land of acrologia, they do stumble a bit more than more experienced writers do. This is most likely because the folks who’ve been doing this for a good while are well aware that they’ll make the same kinds of mistakes, so they make sure they’ve got a bunch of sharp-eyed readers to help them ferret out the offenders.

Here are some of the words I’ve seen most often used incorrectly. Do you think you might have accidentally used one? Or more?

Let’s start with bemused. Many people think it’s synonymous with amused. It ain’t. Bemused means confused. Trust me; I’ve been bemused, and there’s nothing remotely humorous about it.

When I see words being misused, I feel compelled to make corrections. Compelled, you see, means one is forced to do something; it’s not just that one is unwilling to do it. He or she has no choice.

I’ve probably heard the alleged word “conversate” more often than I’ve seen it in a manuscript. No matter, it’s still a prime offender. Trust me on this: conversate doesn’t mean having a conversation. In fact, it doesn’t mean a damned thing. Please don’t use it; it’s not a word.

Next up are two words with nearly identical spellings but totally different meanings. Get these wrong and your more erudite readers will abandon you–and your writing! Discreet means unobtrusive, unlikely to give offense. It can also mean capable of keeping secrets. The troublesome non-synonym, discrete, means separate or distinct. You see, there’s no need to treat this discreetly, the two words have utterly discrete meanings. Got it?

Enormity is a word that seems to give many folks trouble. It means extreme evil, not great size. The enormity is my appetite, not my waistline. [sigh]

Then there’s the subtle difference between grisly and grizzly. If you’re talking about something horrendous or horrific, use grisly. Unless, of course, you’re referring to Ursus arctos or one of its honey-loving kin.

Another oft-mangled word is nauseous. It refers to something that causes nausea; it doesn’t mean to feel sick.

For some reason, the word peruse is often confused. If you peruse something, it means you’ve examined it carefully. Don’t mistake it for skimming over something.

And how ’bout prodigal? The proper meaning is wasteful. The Bible tells us of someone who wandered off and squandered his inheritance. The prodigal part refers to throwing away his wealth, not his road map.

And then there’s redundant, as in the oft-maligned “Department of Redundancy Department.” What it doesn’t mean is being repetitious. What it does mean is using words that just aren’t needed; they’re superfluous. There’s a difference!

If you intend to refute something, be ready to completely disprove it, otherwise you’ll just be offering a rebuttal. A charge successfully refuted in court could mean freedom for the accused, a rebuttal only means one person disagrees with another. The defendant may still end up in the slammer.

Let’s also set the record straight on restive. It means fidgety or difficult to control. It definitely does not mean restful. My dog is often restive when he should be restful.

Finally, we get to the word travesty, which simply refers to a mockery or parody of something. Please don’t confuse it with tragedy, unless the act is so biting that it causes the mocked party to collapse and die.

Happy wordsmithing!


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to So, you wanna be a wordsmith?

  1. dorisreidy says:

    I am feeling faintly nauseated that I’ve been guilty of misusing nauseous. Thanks for a funny, helpful post.

  2. polinto says:

    As in discrete mathematics? I’ve never had a chance to use that anywhere, but I’m sure I’ve messed up at least a few of the others. Thanks!

  3. I feel a bit nauseated as well. Gee, thanks, Josh. ;D Great post!

  4. Gerald Flinchum says:

    We’re all guilty of the superfluous misuse of these words.

  5. Amanda says:

    It is quite the travesty that I have been misusing bemused and peruse wrong all these years! Thank you for clarifying 🙂

  6. An-l says:

    You hit me hard this week, Josh. I avoid using most of the words you mentioned because I misuse them so often it makes me feel nauseous. Oh no, did I goof up again!

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