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25+ Commonly Misused English Words And Phrases That Literally Make Us Cringe

Updated September 1, 2021 11.6k votes 1k voters 38.4k views28 items

List RulesVote up the most cringe-worthy misused English words and phrases.

English is incredibly tricky.

Influenced by numerous other languages, English has distinct grammatical features, countless homonyms, and all kinds of anomalies that make it difficult to use correctly. As a result, many common English-language mistakes show up over and over.

When you hear them or see them in writing, these misused words and phrases can bring out some pretty strong reactions. Whether they literally evoke rage or figuratively drive you nuts, there's an argument to be made for nipping them in the bud.

We've gathered just a few of the most commonly misused English words and phrases here - vote up the ones that, for all intents and purposes, irk you the most. 

  • 1

    "Their" is possessive; "there" is the opposite of "here;" and "they're" is a contraction of "they are."

  • 2

    Generally speaking, to accept is a verb that means to receive, while except refers to exclusion. Except is used as a preposition and conjunction, but has a verb-ish feel to it, adding to the confusion. 

  • 3

    Intensive purposes may exist, but the proper saying is "for all intents and purposes." Phonetically very similar, the phrase "all intents and purposes" encompasses all options and traces back to the 16th century.  

  • 4

    When someone says they "could care less," it's likely they mean they couldn't. Thinking the phrase through, saying you COULD care less really doesn't get the point across, because it means you still care. 

  • 5

    Often used as a synonym for "regardless," the term "irregardless" is also swapped in for words like "irrespective" and "heedless." The word itself is troublesome because, technically, the prefix ir- negates the rest of the word rather than intensifies it.

  • 6

    Perhaps a misuse that's more obvious in written form than spoken, "could of" should be "could have" or "could've." The same is true for "should" and "would" - linguistically they're connected to the verb "have."

  • 7

    A simple mispronunciation, "pacifically" is swapped out for "specifically" on occasion. "Pacifically" is an adverb that means peacefully (and the Pacific is an ocean), but to do something "specifically" is to do it for a particular reason and with clarity. 

  • 8

    The correct phrase is "nip it in the bud," essentially a reference to gardening. To nip something in the bud is to cut it off at its origins and prevent future development. Nipping something in the butt is very, very different. 

  • 9

    "Literally" means something is exactly what it says or claims to be, while "figuratively" is metaphorical and comparative in nature. To say something "literally made your head explode" isn't accurate unless things just got really messy. 

  • 10

    As a point that no longer matters, it might make sense for it to be "mute." The correct phrase, however, is "moot point," with the word "moot" tied to British legal tradition. During the 16th century, it referred to "the discussion of a hypothetical case by law students for practice."

  • 11

    Coffee may get you moving in express fashion, but the form of condensed, highly caffeinated java in question is called "espresso." 

  • 12

    "Especially" is often mispronounced as "expecially," comparable to the same type of error when saying words like "espresso" and "escape."

  • 13

    The correct term, "scapegoat," describes someone blamed for wrongdoings and mistakes. A goat may be the culprit, as was the case when the word appeared in the Bible, but any escape is purely circumstantial. 

  • 14

    You can beckon. You can call. But to be at someone's "beck and call" is to be at the constant ready. Both verbs, "to beck" is to use a gesture, while to call indicates verbal signals and commands. 

  • 15

    The term "ignorant" has come to connote stupidity and a lack of intelligence. The definition of "ignorant," however, is to simply not have the knowledge or information. While calling someone ignorant is very often taken as an insult, it's simply an acknowledgement of fact. 

  • 16

    The correct phrase, "dog eat dog," refers to ruthlessness and struggle of whatever world is in question, evoking images of two dogs fighting to survive. If you say it too quickly, it sounds like "doggy dog," perhaps allowing for the confusion. 

  • 17

    The Latin phrase "et cetera" means "and the rest," but many people mispronounce it by saying "ex cetera." In writing, shortening it to "etc." eliminates the problem. 

  • 18

    The word "ironic" means to happen in the opposite way of what is intended or expected. To say something is ironic has become common in the description of coincidences and bad luck. The fact that Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" contains no irony is, arguably, ironic

  • 19

    The phrase is "wreak havoc," but it's often misused as "reek" or even "wreck" havoc. The verb "wreak" means to bring about, holding true to the meaning that havoc is about to arrive. Wreckage and havoc might go hand-in-hand, perhaps causing the confusion. Havoc could reek, too, depending on the circumstances. 

  • 20

    They sound similar, but "weary" means to be tired, while "wary" indicates the need to be cautious. You can actually be both at the same time, as they're both used as adjectives.

  • 21

    "Fewer" is used when referencing a specific number of countable things, while "less" is correct when applied to measured quantities and amounts.

  • 22

    The correct phrase is "old wives' tale," a story that relays a belief or superstition. Perhaps a bit of wisdom can come out of such a tale, but the saying "old wise tale" isn't accurate.  

  • 23

    The phrase "per se" is Latin for "in and of itself." Because it sounds like "per say," it's often misused based on phonetics alone. "Per say," per se, makes no sense at all.

  • 24

    Mouths being wet and salivating is a regular part of appetite-related behavior, making "wet your appetite" seem sensical - but it's not. The correct phrase is "whet your appetite" and it means to make someone interested in something. 

  • 25

    It might be somewhat painful to be hungry, but the phrase is "hunger pangs" rather than "hunger pains." Pangs refers to the contraction of stomach muscles when it's empty.