Common Errors – Page 4

Five Common Usage Mistakes to Avoid – Page 4 of 4

#1) Aggravate vs. Irritate

These words are not synonymous. Aggravate means “to make worse” while Irritate means “to annoy.” Shocking, but one cannot aggravate a person. (This would, I suppose, mean, “I am making you a worse person,” which is surely not what is meant). Sitting out in the cold can aggravate a sick person’s disease, which would probably irritate the person.

#2) Irregardless and Supposably

 These are not words. The ones you are looking for are “regardless” and “supposedly.”

#3) Imply vs. Infer

These two words cannot be interchanged at will, although many treat them as synonyms. To imply something is to suggest it indirectly. If I kept telling you how much I love Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit every time I see you, I might be implying that we should watch it together someday. To infermeans to come to a conclusion based on what evidence is available. If I kept telling you how much I love Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit every time I see you, you might infer that I have poor taste in movies. A cheap mnemonic device: writers and speakers imply (I’m supplying just enough information for you), listeners and readers infer (they look in ‘fer the real meaning)

#4) Principle vs. Principal 

This mnemonic device goes way back. Mr. Bishop – is he your principal or your principle? Principle means, among other definitions, a rule or a guideline that one should follow. If you are acting on your principles, you are behaving ethically. A principal is the head of a school, and you can remember this because Mr. Bishop is your pal. A princely pal, in fact. As an adjective, principal means first, or most important, as in, “the principal reason why I am here is to discuss climate change.” If you can remember that the principal is the most important person in a school, you may remember this other definition as well.

#5) Lay vs. Lie

We left this one for last because it’s a landmine. Ignoring the common definition of “to lie” meaning “to tell untruths,” Lie is an intransitive verb, and Lay is transitive, which means that lie CANNOT be followed by a direct object, while lay MUST be followed by one. I lie on the couch, and the leaves lie in the yeard, but I lay my head on the pillow, and the willow tree lays its branches across the pond (the required direct objects are italicized). Easy, right? No. It’s English. Nothing is easy. The past tense of lie is lay (wait a minute…) I lay in bed all afternoon yesterday – while the past tense of lay is laid, as in, The swans laid their eggs last spring. IT GETS WORSE! The past participle of lie is lain (huh?), and the past participle of lay is still laid – The clothes have lain on the bed since yesterday, but I have laid my suitcases on the shelf. OK, try to keep all of this straight, but the most important part is the transitive/intransitive distinction.

#6) Who vs. Whom (Six Problems??? Bonus Level!)

You’ve been waiting your whole life for this. And Creed Bratton is wrong; whom is not just a word that has been made up to trick students. Who is a subject pronoun. Whom is an object pronoun. Don’t use whom as a subject. The easiest way to keep these straight is that you use whom in situations where you might use the other pronouns with an M in them (him or them). With whom did I speak? I spoke with them. To whom shall I give the gift? To him.


Try to answer these without referring to the information above. Circle the correct answer

1) I couldn’t find the woman (who / whom) took the final baguette.

2) Eva tried to live her live by a simple (principal / principle): be nice to people who deserve it. 

3) Craig had had a series of bad first dates – all the girls he met seemed nice at first, but soon (aggravated / irritated) him with their small talk.

4) She was unwilling to say so directly, but Marjorie (implied / inferred) to her husband that he should take a shower.

5) Vladimir is (supposably / supposedly) the better boxer, but Marco defeated him easily.

6) Using all of the clues at the crime scene, Inspector Dumond (implied / inferred) that the murderer was, of course, the butler.

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