On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s learn some of the English words you are probably using incorrectly!
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Hopefully, after listening to a few episodes of this podcast, you’ve come to realise the flexibility and ever-changing nature of the English language. Words are invented, evolve, change meaning, and sometimes disappear from our vocabularies.
Think of the word “awful.” What does it mean? In modern English, the dictionary defines “awful” as very bad or unpleasant. However, originally it meant the complete opposite. A combination of the words “awe” and “full,” “awful” was used to refer to something that “inspired wonder or fear.” Over the years, the word was used incorrectly by so many people that eventually the meaning completely changed. There are hundreds of similar examples in the English language of words with meanings that have evolved from their original meaning.
However, not all of these words have been accepted to the degree of the term “awful.” Many words are regularly used incorrectly – sometimes in the wrong grammatical sense and other times with the completely wrong meaning. Today I want to introduce to you all a few English words that are commonly misused by both native speakers and language learners. Perhaps in the future such words’ meanings will completely change, but as of the time I’m writing this episode people are using them all incorrectly!
I’ve chosen literally as the first word of today’s episode because it is probably the most misused word in modern English, is at risk of losing its original meaning in the next few decades, and I find its incorrect use really annoying. In standard English, literally means actual fact. It means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense.’
Literally is used to say that something really happened, in a completely accurate way, or to emphasise the truth or accuracy of your statement. It is a synonym for words including ‘precisely,’ ‘exactly,’ or ‘accurately.’ For example, the celebration ‘Mardi Gras’ literally translates as “Fat Tuesday” in French. Or, there are literally hundreds of thousands of podcasts on Spotify.
However, you’ve probably heard literally used incorrectly. Somehow, the word has taken on the exact opposite meaning – something that isn’t an actual fact. It is used as a synonym for ‘virtually’ or ‘figuratively’. A friend of mine once told me that “she was literally going to die from embarrassment.” She didn’t actually mean she was going to die, but instead used literally as to emphasise her embarrassment. Instead, she should have said “she was going to die from embarrassment – figuratively speaking.”
Another friend once told me the restaurant we were meeting at was literally opposite the train station – I arrived at the train station, looked at the restaurants opposite and couldn’t seem to find it. In fact, the restaurant was about 50m away – it was close but not literally opposite. Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes as my friends!
Have you heard the song Ironic by Alanis Morrissette? It is really famous! Her song describes various situations in life and follows them by asking the questions “Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?” Let me read you one of the song’s verses,
“A traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic … don’t you think?”Alanis Morissette, Ironic
Well, to answer Alanis’s questions, no… I don’t think any of that is ironic… because they are not ironic. The situations are examples of coincidences, not irony. A “no smoking sign on your cigarette break” is annoying, unfortunate, and coincidental, but it is not ironic. However, the fact that Alanis Morissette wrote a whole song about irony without including any ironic examples, may in itself be ironic!
An ironic statement conveys a meaning that is opposite of its literal meaning – when you make an ironic statement, you say one thing, but mean something different. If there is a terrible storm, with gusting winds and torrential rain, an ironic statement would be to say “what a beautiful day”! This is the most common form of irony – verbal irony. You can also have dramatic irony – for example a TV show where the audience knows something the characters do not – and situational irony – where outcomes turn out different to what is expected.
Even though irregardless is commonly used, it is not actually a real word. What people want to say is ‘regardless’ – used to mean “in spite of present circumstances.” For example “Regardless of the result, I’m happy with my answers in the exam.” Or, “regardless of how many times you ask, I’m not going to lend you my car.”
Irregardless is a portmanteau (so a combination) or ‘regardless’ and ‘irrespective.’ While some people consider irregardless as part of non-standard or different variants of English, and it has been used for hundreds of years, I would advise all of you to avoid it! Instead, just use either “regardless” or “irrespective”!
The reason I’ve included poisonous on this list is because of a discussion I overheard about poisonous snakes. The people involved in that discussion were talking about what they would do if they got bitten by a poisonous snake – things like how they would get the poison out of their body, how they should go to hospital, and whether they should capture the snake that bit them! However, they made a common mistake – poisonous is not the correct word!
Something that is poisonous could be fatal (in other words kill you) if you eat it, drink it, inhale it, or absorb it. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous, the apple Snow White ate was poisonous, and medicine can be poisonous if used incorrectly. Something that could kill you if it bites you is venomous not poisonous. The Inland Taipan is the most venomous snake in the world! All over the TV, internet, and magazines you will see references to poisonous snakes – but, in fact, most dangerous snakes are not poisonous. They deliver toxins by biting – they are venomous.
Ultimate is not necessarily always misused, but often people don’t know all the meanings of the term and don’t follow the proper grammar. Most people think ultimate means ‘the best of all,’ and this is correct! It can be used as a noun – such as “Rolex is the ultimate in luxury watch brands” – or as an adjective – such as “they want to challenge the ultimate power of the President.” However, in the sentence “it is not possible to predict the ultimate outcome of the situation,” ultimate doesn’t mean the best, but means the final.
You should use ultimate to describe the final result or aim of a series of events, or the original source or cause of something! I’m not sure what my ultimate aim is for this podcast, but some people have told me I should ultimately try to make this my job! Ultimate can be used for best, final, or last!
Regularly is also commonly misunderstood. Regularly does not mean to do something frequently, but instead to do something consistently. Let me give you an example. Person 1 plays golf the second Tuesday of every month, and has done so for five years. Person 2 played golf twice last week, seven times the week before, zero times three weeks ago, and once the week before that. Many people would say that person two regularly plays golf – but actually they don’t. They play frequently, or often.
Regularly means at uniform intervals of time, and with a consistent or definite pattern – therefore, the golfer who only plays once a month, but always the same day, golfs regularly. Take another example, “the school reunion has taken place regularly every two years.” It is regular because it is consistent – every two years!
The final commonly misused word I’m going to introduce today is an interesting one – inflammable. Sometimes, the English language can be confusing and contradictory. As a prefix, ‘in’ can have the meaning of ‘no’ or ‘not’ – if something is ‘inoffensive’ it is not offensive, or ‘inaction’ means no or a lack of action. Therefore, as ‘flammable’ means easy to set on fire, inflammable should mean the opposite – difficult to set on fire – right? Actually, wrong.
Flammable and inflammable actually mean the exact same thing. They both mean that something can catch fire easily. It is one of the more confusing things in the English language, but you will see both words commonly used on fire safety material.
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