Commonly Misused Words—and How to Avoid Them

We've all been there. Let's conquer this list of commonly misused words and how we can continue to avoid them in our writing!

We’ve all been there, whether we’re thumb-typing a text (curse you, autocorrect!), drafting a resume, or sending an email to our boss: after hitting “send” we realize we’ve misusing a word that has a doppelganger with a completely different meaning. Just as this happens regularly in everyday communication, commonly misused words regularly litter the pages of the manuscripts that hit our desks (or ping our inboxes).

Examples of commonly misused words

While editing manuscripts, I like to keep a running list of both cringeworthy and humorous misused words. In recent history, I’ve come across the following incidents:

  • Passed rather than past
  • Deerly rather than dearly (i.e., “I love you deerly.”)
  • Ease-dropping rather than eavesdropping
  • Preverbal rather than proverbial (i.e., “She developed her preverbal backbone.”)
  • Color pallet rather than color palette
  • Alkaloids rather than accolades

Even Microsoft Word often cannot be trusted when it comes to misused words. Unfortunately, Word’s editing software often is not perceptive enough to discern key differences in wording and turns of phrase. For instance, in a manuscript I recently edited, Word’s spell check insisted that “Her dear husband” needed to be “Her dead husband.” What a difference that small change would have made!

Key strategies for catching misused words

While misused words are slippery rascals to locate, there are several helpful strategies that you can employ to locate and resolve these embarrassing errors prior to publication:

Read through your manuscript aloud.

Reading your manuscript aloud helps you hear grammatical errors and makes you focus more on each word rather than skimming over mistakes while reading internally from the screen.

Keep a dictionary site open as you write.

Professional editors usually have the Merriam-Webster.com tab open while working on a manuscript. I often copy and paste words from a manuscript into Merriam-Webster’s search bar to confirm spelling and usage. As the author, take time to go back through your manuscript using this tool. If you’re unsure about the meaning or spelling of a word or phrase, take time to dig deeper. When in doubt, look it up!

Check out the Chicago Manual of Style’s list of commonly misused words and phrases.

This resource is practically the editor’s Bible when it comes to grammar, style, and usage. The CMOS helpfully devotes an entire section of chapter 5 to a glossary of problematic words and phrases, titled, “Good usage versus common usage.” Take time to read through this guide, and after time, you’ll learn to easily identify improperly used words and phrases. Most of the time, it simply comes down to memorizing and double-checking rules for proper use.

Purchase an editing service.

While you as the author can and should weed misused words out of your writing, it’s always beneficial to have a professional come to your work with a fresh pair of eyes. Editors are used to locating misused words and phrases and can help by calling out errors that have slipped past you and offering simple solutions.

Good luck and bon voyage on your journey to rid your writing of pesky misused words

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