"Exacerbate" and "exasperate."
These two words are pronounced differently, but often confused in writing. "Exacerbate" is pronounced like "eg-ZA-ser-bate" and means "to make worse," as in "skydiving may exacerbate a torn ligament" or "shooting people may exacerbate hostilities." On the other hand, "exasperate," which is pronounced "eg-ZAS-peh-rate," means "to irritate or annoy," as in "sitting in traffic really exasperates me."
It's "champing at the bit," not "chomping at the bit."
To "champ at the bit" means to be eager to go. The word "champ" is an archaic term meaning "to chew on something noisily." When a horse is eager to go, it will often grind its teeth against the bit, which makes a loud noise; hence, "champ at the bit."
Some grammar books are beginning to list "chomp at the bit" as an alternative, since it's such a common mistake, but "champ at the bit" is the original and more correct expression.
It's "bated breath," not "baited breath."
The word "bated" is archaic, and almost never used any more. It's a derivation of "abated," which means "lessened."
To have "bated breath" means to be holding one's breath (literally, one's breathing has been abated), because of some emotion such as fear or anticipation. "I had bated breath" is the equivalent of saying "I held my breath." "I had baited breath," on the other hand, means "my breath smells like bait," which is kind of nasty.
"Dominant" and "dominate."
These two words are often confused, but they're entirely different parts of speech. "Dominant" is an adjective ("The pack is led by the dominant male") or, in the BDSM subculture, a noun (a "dominant" is a person who assumes the controlling role in erotic power exchange). "Dominate" is a verb that means to exert control over; "The dominant male in the wolf pack dominates the other wolves."
When speaking of agreement, it's "jibe," not "jive."
To "jibe" means to agree, as in His account of the crime did not jibe with the other eyewitness accounts. "Jive" is a style of dance.
"Literally" means "actually."
Something is literally true if it is actually true; "literally" is the opposite of "metaphorically" or "figuratively." So if you say "I am so happy I am literally walking on air," what you mean is you are so happy that your body is now violating the law of gravity and your feet are no longer in contact with the ground.
Many people say "literally" when they mean "figuratively." If you are hungry, but you are not in the hospital being treated for malnourishment, you are not "literally starving."
One thing can not be "more unique" than another, or "very unique."
"Unique" means "one of a kind." It's based on the Latin "unus," meaning "one." Something can not be "very one-of-a-kind" or "more one-of-a-kind" than another; the word "unique" should not be used with modifiers.
Something that is not directly relevant is "beside the point," not "besides the point."
When a particular part of a conversation or argument is not directly relevant to the main point of that conversation or argument, but is tangentially related, it is said to be "beside the point"--that is, not directly on point. "Besides the point" is incorrect usage; "besides" means "except" or "in addition to," so it seems likely that this confusion may have arisen from the idea that the expression means "that is in addition to the point," which is not correct.
"Bald-faced liar" and "bold-faced liar" are both correct, but mean different things.
I'm often asked which is the correct expression, "He was a bald-faced liar" or "She was a bold-faced liar." Both expressions are correct; "bald-faced liar" is a modern expression, and "bold-faced liar" dates back to the 1500s.
A "bald-faced liar" is a person who tells simple, obvious lies. "Bald" in this context means "unadorned" or "obvious," rather than "hairless." A "bold-faced liar" is a person who lies in a strong, confident, self-certain way; the expression "bold-faced" literally means "in a bold manner."
There is a third variant as well, which is not often used: "bare-faced liar." It means something slightly different as well; according to Merriam-Webster, "bare-faced" is an idiom meaning "without scruples." A "bare-faced liar" is an unethical or unscrupulous liar.
"Disinterested" and "uninterested" do not mean the same thing!
The word "disinterested" means "impartial." A judge in a courtroom should be disinterested in the outcome; that is, the judge should not have any vested interest one way or the other, and he should be impartial to the issue being determined.
"Uninterested" means "not interested in;" for example, "Bob is uninterested in football" means Bob does not care about football. A courtroom judge is (or should be) disinterested, but he is not uninterested!
"Disorganized" and "unorganized" do not mean the same thing!
The word "unorganized" simply means "not organized." A cluttered desk may be unorganized, yet the person who works at it might still be able to find everything on it. "Disorganized" means "not organized" with connotations of dysfunction; it's used to describe something that is not only unorganized, but unorganized in a way that makes work difficult or makes finding things impossible.
"Altogether" and "all together" do not mean the same thing!
"All together" means "all in one group," as in "let's keep the socks all together." On the other hand, "altogether" means "completely," as in "His speech was altogether full of hot air."
"Farther" and "further" do not mean the same thing!
"Farther" is used when you are talking about distance: "San Francisco is farther from Tampa than Atlanta is." "Further" is used when you're speaking of abstract ideas or talking metaphorically; "San Francisco goes further to deal with urban sprawl than Atlanta does."
"Less" and "fewer" do not mean the same thing!
"Less" is used in situations where you're talking about something that's not discrete or easily quantified: "This car uses less gas than my old car." "Fewer," on the other hand, is used in situations where you are talking about a countable quantity of discrete objects: "The express lane is only for people with eight items or fewer," "fewer people voted for John than for Jake." The signs you see in supermarkets reading "Express Lane: Eight items or less?" Wrong.
It's "for all intents and purposes," not "for all intensive purposes."
"For all intents and purposes" means "for all practical purposes." Many people erroneously write "for all intensive purposes," which would, presumably, mean for purposes that are not casual, or perhaps for purposes that are trivial--near to the opposite of the phrase's intent.
It's "deep seated," not "deep seeded."
When something is firmly established, it is said to be "deep seated." This can be either figurative (as in "celebrating Christmas is a deep-seated tradition in many Western nations") or literal (as in "volcanoes can be the result of a deep-seated mass of molten rock welling up to the surface").
The expression "deep-seeded" appears to be a mishearing of "deep-seated." If you feel strongly about something, you have a "deep-seated conviction," not a "deep-seeded conviction."
When the details of a plan or idea are filled in, the plan or idea has been "fleshed out," not "flushed out."
One talks metaphorically of taking an idea that is sketchy--in other words, the skeleton of an idea--and "fleshing it out," or completing it. I'm not quite sure how one would "flush out" an idea, but the process doesn't sound very sanitary...
It's "embedded," not "imbedded."
"Embedded" means "set within" or "enclosed." If you put a bottle cap in wet cement, when it hardens, the bottle cap becomes embedded in the cement. An embedded computer is a computer set in something else, like a microwave oven or a cell phone.
It's "pronunciation," not "pronounciation."
A reader of this site pointed out to me that this is an error I'd made myself--right here on this very page! "Pronounciation" is not actually a word at all; the way a word is pronounced is its "pronunciation."
Interestingly, a Google search for "pronounciation," which is the error, turns up over a million hits, whereas a search for the correct "pronunciation" turns up about 41 million hits, which suggests that at least one in 41 people makes this mistake.
It's "shudder to think," not "shutter to think."
To "shudder" is to tremble, as from fright; "shudder to think" means "the thought of that is so frightening (or disturbing or whatever) that the very thought of it is enough to make me shudder."
It's "bear with me," not "bare with me."
To "bear" something means to carry it, as in "to bear arms," or to toil with as a burden; "I can't bear this heavy backpack," or, more figuratively, "I can't bear this pain." "Bear with me" means "carry along with me;" "bare with me" means "get naked with me."
It's "should have," not "should of."
"Have" is a verb; "of" is a preposition. "I should have gone" or "I would have gone if I had the money" are correct. "I should of gone" or "I would of gone" are incorrect; the word "gone" is not part of a prepositional phrase.
It seems that the incorrect "should of" likely is a mishearing of the contraction "should've," which is short for "should have." If "should've" is spoken without clear enunciation, it sounds like "should of."
Something you make is your "handiwork," not your "handywork."
The word "handiwork" comes from the Middle English handiwerk, which in turn derives from the Old English hand gework, literally, "the work produced by the hands." It's the result of your skill or labor: "this model train set is my handiwork." A person skilled with his hands, especially at odd jobs, is said to be "handy," and a person who does a number of odd jobs is sometimes called a "handyman," which is probably how the confusion regarding "handiwork" and "handywork" got started. A handyman produces handiwork, not handywork.
It's "death knell," not "death nail."
The word "knell" is an archaic term meaning "to sound in an ominous manner, as the ringing of a bell to indicate a death or disaster." A "death knell" is literally the sound of a funeral bell.
It's "A lot," never "alot."
"A lot" is two words, as in "We have a lot of food in the kitchen" or "Florida is being hammered by a lot of hurricanes this season." It means "A large quantity." You would never say "abunch;" it's two words--"a bunch." Same thing. And "allot" means something else entirely; "allot" is a verb, meaning "to assign" or "to distribute," as in "Bob will allot one doughnut and one cup of coffee to each attendee."
It's a "moot point," not a "mute point."
Something is "moot" if it is debatable or of undecided value; if you don't live in Florida, then the fact that Florida residents get discounted Disney World tickets is moot to you. "Mute" means "unable to make a sound."
It's "hear hear," not "here here."
"Hear hear" means something like the more contemporary vernacular "I hear you;" it indicates agreement and assent. "Here here" means "not over there there," and that's just kind of silly.
It's "Lo and behold," not "low and behold."
The word "lo!" is a Middle English expression of surprise. "Lo and behold" is kind of the equivalent of saying "Well, hey, look at that!"
It's "Nothing fazes me," not "nothing phases me."
To "faze" is to disturb or frighten. "She was unfazed" means "she retained her composure." "He was unphased" means "he was not made of a number of waveforms that were in synchronization." Big difference, folks.
"I couldn't care less," not "I could care less."
"I could care less" means "I do care." It would be possible for me to care less, because I already care. If I do not care at all--if the amount I care about something is zero--then it would be impossible for me to care any less, because I can't care about something less than a zero amount...I couldn't care less.
It's "etc," not "ect."
"Etc" is an abbreviation for "et cetera" (two words), which is Latin for "and so forth." "Et" means "and," which is why "etc" is sometimes written "&c". "Etc" is correct. "&c" is correct but archaic. "Ect" is not, never has been, and never will be correct.
The abbreviations "ie" and "eg" do not mean the same thing!
You use "ie" when you mean "in other words" or "that is to say." It's Latin for "id est," which means "that is." For example: "He is a businessman; ie, he makes his money by operating a business." On the other hand, "eg" is used to mean "for example." It's Latin for "exempli gratia." "I do not like spectator sports--eg, football and baseball." Most properly, they are written "i.e." and "e.g.," though "ie" and "eg" are becoming more common.
For example: eg. In other words: ie.
"Insure" and "ensure" do not mean the same thing either!
"Ensure" means "to make sure of." Double-check your math on your tax return to ensure you don't get an embarrassing phone call from the IRS. "Insure," on the other hand, means "to provide insurance for," you insure your house in order to ensure that you won't be financially ruined if it burns down.
"Between" and "among" do not mean the same thing either!
The word "between" has a very specific meaning; it means to be in the center of exactly two other things. A piece of sliced ham can go between two slices of bread, for example.
This becomes significant when you talk about groups. For example, you can correctly say "can you keep this issue between you and me," but you would not say "This issue needs to be kept between you, me, and the lawyers." If you have more than two things involved, the correct word is "among."
So you could say "The goal of this meeting is to reach agreement between you and me," but not "The goal of this meeting is to reach agreement between Sales, Marketing, and Production." In that case, you'd say "The goal of this meeting is to reach agreement among Sales, Marketing, and Production."
To be caught "between the devil and the deep blue sea" does not mean "between two unattractive options."
It means "to be in a position where you have no room to maneuver." There are two theories about the origin of this expression. The first is the idea that the 'devil' on a wooden sailing ship was a term for the main spar of the ship--a brace that runs the whole length of the ship from front to back, around which the frame of the ship is built. There is a very narrow space--typically less than 3' high--between a ship's devil and the bottom of the hull; this was sometimes the space where the most lowly members of a ship's crew slept, quite literally "between the devil and the deep blue sea." It's a very, very tiny space. The other is that the seams on a wooden ship near the waterline were often referred to as the "devil," and that sealing these seams to keep them watertight involved a sailor being lowered over the side of the ship on a rope, with a bucket of sealing pitch; such a sailor was dangling precariously "between the devil and the deep blue sea." (I've seen one Web page which claims that the expression predates the days of wooden sailing ships, but I haven't seen any documented usage of the term that dates back that far.)
"You have piqued my interest," not "you have peaked my interest" or "you have peeked my interest."
The word "pique" (pronounced like "peek") means "to excite or arouse." "You have piqued my interest" means "you have aroused my interest"--that is, I wasn't interested before, but now I am.
A group is a "clique," not a "click"
"Clique" is pronounced like "click." However, the meaning is completely different. "Clique" was originally a French word; hence the weird spelling.
Something that's stylish is "chic," not "sheik"
"Chic" is another confusing French import. It's pronounced like "sheik" but means "elegant, stylish, or sophisticated."
It's "whet my appetite," not "wet my appetite."
"Whet" means "sharpen." A tool that sharpens a knife is called a "whetstone." To "whet" one's appetite means to sharpen one's appetite--"That appetizer really whetted my appetite!" To "wet" one's appetite means to make it soggy.
"Buck naked" is probably more correct than "butt naked."
The etymology of the expression "buck naked" is, sadly, obscure, though the Random House dictionary cites uses of the term "buck naked" in American slang going back to at least the 1920s. The earliest cited occurrence for "butt naked," according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, dates to the mid-1960s. Several dictionaries speculate that "buck" is a corruption of "butt," but to date nobody I am aware of can show a citation for "butt naked" predating "buck naked." It appears most likely that "buck naked" came first, and "butt naked" is a phonetic corruption of the original "buck naked."