Grammar Restoring the Meanings of Misused Words |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Restoring the Meanings of Misused Words

Words give us an array of ways to express what we’re thinking or feeling with boldness or nuance. The more we use them in the proper context according to their definitions, the more settled they become in our eloquence.

Within American English, some words continue to operate as people wearing another’s attire. One can ponder whether this is due to their misuse being comfortably accepted or their concepts remaining unstitched. Either way, we can still spot their masquerade with the aim of returning them to their own wardrobes.

The following are misused words that we might read or hear with regularity.

Ironic. Its original meaning concerns incongruence between expectation and outcome. For example, a civil engineer admiring a bridge she designed that suddenly collapses would be ironic. Another example would be a hospital running out of aspirin.

Conversely, a situation such as “rain on your wedding day” in Alanis Morissette’s 1990s hit single “Ironic” would be a coincidence (or just plain bad luck). However, the applications of ironic that her song uses have only gained traction; includes “coincidental; unexpected” within its entry.

It’s possible that popular use will continue to blur the distinction between irony and coincidence. Careful writers can remain aware of and uphold their difference.

Infamous. Some might still use this word to mean “incredibly famous.” While it does convey being famous, it is typically for the wrong reasons. Infamous implies having a bad reputation. An infamous celebrity might be one who has trouble with the law.

Peruse. On occasion we might express that we “perused” the selections at the airport newsstand. We would be correct if we meant that we observed them with attention to detail. If all we did was glance at what was available, we would more succinctly say we “browsed” or “skimmed” the display.

Similar to splitting ironic‘s definitions, using peruse to mean “to browse” or “to skim” has become so pervasive that dictionaries are acceding. The entry at includes both “to read with thoroughness and care” and “to scan or browse.” This dichotomy does not favor precision, and resolution will arrive only by fully changing or restoring the definition. Careful writers can favor the original meaning.

Misuse Driven by Sound

Other common misuses arise from words that sound like they should mean one thing when in fact they represent the opposite. When you read or hear the following words, there’s often a chance they’re appearing in the wrong sentence.

Word enervate
Mistaken Meaning to energize
Correct Meaning to weaken or sap
Correct Example Standing in the ticket line for six hours enervated us.
Word enormity*
Mistaken Meaning enormousness, great size
Correct Meaning something outrageous or heinous
Correct Example The enormity of the bank scandal was even worse than they thought.
Word fulsome*
Mistaken Meaning full, abundant, copious
Correct Meaning offensive to good taste, improperly or insincerely excessive
Correct Example She didn’t believe his fulsome apology for staying away all weekend.
Word noisome
Mistaken Meaning noisy
Correct Meaning noxious, offensive, disgusting (especially an odor)
Correct Example The smell from the trashcan was noisome.
Word proscribe
Mistaken Meaning to prescribe, recommend, direct
Correct Meaning to condemn, forbid
Correct Example The village proscribes alcohol sales on Sundays.

*The entries at and Merriam-Webster online include the disparate meanings.

As with any great movement involving the masses, the juggernaut of popular opinion will likely prevail over time as it concerns the usage of words. In the meantime, we can keep the lamps of precision and eloquence lit by maintaining proper distinctions of meanings.


Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, answer Yes or No to whether each italicized word is used correctly in its sentence.

1. Patricia has fulsome management experience on her resume. [Yes / No]

2. I don’t have much time so I’ll just peruse the notes from the meeting. [Yes / No]

3. Company policy now proscribes wearing sandals at work. [Yes / No]

4. Last night there was a fire at the fire station—ironic, isn’t it? [Yes / No]



Pop Quiz Answers

1. No

2. No

3. Yes

4. Yes

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

11 responses to “Restoring the Meanings of Misused Words”

  1. Lee Mac says:

    That’s a good list. My pet peeve–one I seem to hear more frequently from news commentators of late–is using “hone in” instead of “home in.”

    Of course, “hone” means to sharpen or refine. “Home in” means to zero in, or come closer to something, as a homing pigeon does.

    Sadly, Merriam-Webster allows “hone in” to mean “home in.”

  2. Richard Holmes says:

    The use of the phrase “comprised of” instead of “composed of” in modern media irks me. The word “comprises” means “includes,” such as, “The United States comprises the fifty states, territories, and . . . .” Or, “The United States is composed of . . . .” Perhaps this is just another “great movement involving the masses.”

  3. Brenda R says:

    The issues enumerated above ensue from the lack of prescriptive dictionaries, as well as substandard English-language curricula. Most dictionaries readily available, whether online or hardcopy, are of the descriptive variety; hence, their practice of listing “disparate meanings,” which apparently is a euphemistically pretty way of saying “WRONG”!

  4. Michael Moore says:

    My current pet hate is use of epicenter for any concentration of interest. What is wrong with center?

    • says:

      In addition to the geological term, American dictionaries list these definitions for epicenter:
      – a point, area, person, or thing that is most important or pivotal in relation to an indicated activity, interest, or condition
      – the focal point of a usually harmful or unpleasant phenomenon or event; the center
      Our view is that, for some people, epicenter is more emphatic than what we agree is the more economical center.

  5. SpaceMagic says:

    There seems to be a problem with a couple of sentences written in this article that appear to use fused-participle, so I thought I will bring it to your attention.
    “For example, a civil engineer admiring a bridge she designed that suddenly collapses would be ironic. ” – Well what is ironic? The civil engineer or her admiring the bridge…
    It seems it should be “a civil engineer’s admiring a bridge she designed that suddenly collapses would be ironic”

    “Another example would be a hospital running out of aspirin.” Is running a past participle or a gerund?

    • says:

      The entire phrase “a civil engineer admiring a bridge she designed that suddenly collapses” is the complete subject of the sentence; it is the full concept expressed in that subject that is ironic. The phrase “a hospital running out of aspirin” is similarly an ironic concept. In that phrase, running is a gerund. Please see our posts Securing the Subject of Subjects and Expressing Possession of Gerunds for more information.

  6. Alvin Schmidt says:

    Why do most grammar books ignore the horrible phrase, “The fact that”?

    • says:

      “The fact that” is not a misused phrase, but it is a wordy one. In concise writing, we can achieve the same end by simply using “that.”

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