July 24, 2016

Guest Post: 5 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases in Writing

By Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

The sentence, “Irregardless of the weather, we are bbq-ing tonight so take the beef out of the freezer so it can unthaw,” is one of my pet peeves – and it’s not just because I’m a vegetarian (flexitarian, really). Unthaw is not a real word, and neither is irregardless. When I see those, I go “Grrrr!!!” (which may or may not be a real word).

I taught Grade 8 Language Arts for three years, and am always amazed that the writing mistakes my students made are same mistakes I see adults make in business correspondence – or even published articles! It’s not because we’re dense; it’s because good writing takes practice. And, to learn something we have to be exposed to it regularly – and even when we have it down pat we still need to keep practicing.

These commonly misused words and phrases may just reinforce what you already know…or they may open up a whole new world of good writing…

“Could of” – When you say “She could’ve taken the beef out of the freezer”, it sounds like “could of.” However, the correct form is “could have.”

“Same exact thing” – If you’re writing tightly (and you should be!), avoid words that mean the exact same thing! Simply writing “the same” should do the trick – depending on context, of course. If your character is a teenager who is emphasizing what her frenemy wore to school, maybe you do want to say “She wore the same exact hat as I” (not me!).

“Peak/pique/peek” – “After eating my thawed beef, I peeked out of the window at the mountain peak, which piqued my interest in geological rock formations.” That works – but some writers don’t pay enough attention to the peak/pique/peek distinction.

“Out of the window” – in my above example about peeking out the window, I say “out of.” To clean up your writing, nix extra phrases like that. Redundant – even if you’re getting paid by the word!

“Affect/Effect” – I’ve never had a problem mixing up these two – I must’ve had a great English teacher! However, just this week I received a business email that misused “affective” (eg, “she was an affective teacher”). The next time you debate affect versus effect, remember that affect is emotion and effect is a result.

It’s your turn, fellow scribes: what are some of your word and phrase “pet peeves”? I welcome your thoughts and rants below!

Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen is a full-time writer and blogger who created and maintains a series of Quips and Tips blogs: Quips and Tips for Successful Writers, Quips and Tips for Achieving Your Goals, and Quips and Tips for Couples Coping With Infertility. She’s also the Feature Writer for Psychology Suite101.

PS for more on this topic, check out my companion post over at Quips and Tips for Successful Writers: 5 Over-Used Words and Phrases for Writers to Avoid.


  1. Marisa Birns says:

    It's not really a peeve or rant, just an observation that I am reading too many articles or stories that misuse than and then .

    Wrong: I spell better then you.
    Wrong: He was a better man then you.

    Correct: I spell better than you.
    Correct: He was a better man than you.

    Than is used only in comparisons.

  2. You know, I've always had trouble with affect and effect. Your explanation may have solved that!

    One of my peeves is "really unique." It's just unique. It can't get anymore unique. It stands alone.

    One of my other pet peeves is the use of "fewer" and "less." Fewer refers to number, less refers to a smaller extent or degree.

    "Fewer people came to this week's meeting than last week's."

    "This study is less exact than the other one."

  3. The Adventurous Writer says:

    Marisa, the "than" versus "then" is another of my pet peeves, because it seems so obvious to me! But, I can never spell "committment" properly, and other writers never stumble over that 🙂

    Virginia, I'm glad I may have helped with the "affect" versus "effect" dilemma.

    Your comment reminds me of the "further" versus "farther" mistake. Farther is literal distance (FAR), while further is figurative distance ("He went further than that when explaining good grammar, but she went farther when she ran to the store.").

    Anyway, thanks for your comments!


  4. Ryan Van Etten says:

    Most people have no clue about grammar. Luckily, I think better auto-spelling and contextual spell-checking may help this in the near future.

    I like to distinguish affect/effect like this:

    affect = verb
    effect = noun

  5. Peggy Bourjaily says:

    Many moons ago, I wrote a similar article for a now nonexistent website more about mis-spoken words and phrases.

    "Myriad problems" rather than "myriad of problems"

    Oh, and the phrases a "whole nother" and "I could care less" just drive me crazy…

  6. Bailish Habilis says:

    Congratulations on making the top ten list of blogs!

    I agree completely with your list, but I've got a bone to pick (another cliche?) about one of your examples.

    You had a teenage girl say: “She wore the same exact hat as I.”

    As a teacher of teenage girls, I'd find the trailing "I" out of place. Teenage girls would use the grammatically incorrect "me," unless, of course, they were the Hermione Granger type–little Miss Perfect, scorned by all of her classmates.

  7. Worth noting, Ryan, that 'effect' is also a verb, as in "with persistence one can effect a change."

    My personal pet peeve is the apostrophe and its numerous inappropriate uses – the greengrocers' apostrophe – "We sell apple's and banana's". That's comically awful, but far more widespread is the tendency to use an apostrophe for plurals of abbreviations – "I've got a great collection of CD's and DVD's."

  8. Nothing is worse than mistaking your for you're and vice versa.

  9. The Adventurous Writer says:

    Yes, "effect" is a verb — and "affect" is a noun in psychological world (it means emotion, basically).

    Amazing how much you can learn in a comments section! Sometimes more than the blog post itself, I daresay.

  10. My favourite is the confusion people seem to have with there, they're and their.

    It should be "they're playing over there with their toys".

    Not "there playing over their with they're toys".

    I've seen just about every permutation of how to get this wrong in my interweb trawlings.

    It do make I larf! :o)

  11. Dawn Herring says:

    I always notice homonyms or contractions being misused: your vs. you're, there vs. their, it's vs. its, etc.
    Plus, when folks use the word 'that' when it's not necessary. I had an English teacher point that out, and I've never forgotten it.
    I find myself needing to question the use of that in all of my writing since it comes up so frequently.

    Always appreciate grammar posts!

    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!

  12. peaceandserenity says:

    Thank you for these! "Irregardless" is a huge pet peeve of mine as well, and I see that someone mentioned the confusion over "fewer" (for nouns you can count, like dollars) and "less" (for nouns you can't count, like money). Once I learned the proper way to use those words, I feel like I see them misused everywhere.

    Another one is when people misuse "well" and "good." For example, to say "I don't feel well" means that your fingers aren't working. If you are sick, saying "I don't feel good" is actually correct.

  13. Meredith Morgan says:

    Steve and Tal mentioned my biggest pet peeves. There's also the ever unpopular "our" v. "are". Actually I think a lot of their/they're, your/you're, and are/our are not so much usage mistakes as typos.

    Either way, they jump up off the page and yell SOMEBODY'S BEING CARELESS.

    Except, of course, when I make the mistake. Then I rarely notice it until it's too late.


  14. I really loved this post! I just found you by way of copyblogger and chrisg and can't wait to read more. I aspire to write better.

    I especially liked this post since one of your peeves was identical to one of mine. I suspect you might enjoy this similar misused-word post I made a while back. This blog will go away though as I'm starting my blog career from scratch soon . . .

    I even propose an origin story for one of your 5 words…

    Five More Misused Words That Make You Look Like a Dummy

    I know, I was a little inflammatory, but it was all in fun. You'll see 🙂

  15. Page Wright says:

    Bought and brought. Bought is a relation of buy. Brought is a relation of bring. There is no connection between the two.

  16. Jennifer W. says:

    A couple of my pet peeves are the incorrect uses of "compliment" and "complement" as well as confusing "premier" and "premiere".

  17. "Over" when one means "more than."

    Example: "Over a million people attended the event!"

    No. MORE than a million people attended the event.

  18. Adam Dilip Mutum says:

    Thanks for the tips. Have to admit that I have made some of the mistakes you have mentioned here. I am being very careful writing this comment.

  19. Sheryl Kraft says:

    I just HATE it when someone writes this (and it's hard to believe (*they* do):

    I was suppose to go to the store today.


    I suppose they didn't pass English 101…

  20. O.K., I'll give my two cents as well! I'm not sure if it's a regional New England issue, but I cannot stand it when someone wants to respond in agreement and says, "So don't I!"

  21. Christina says:

    I try to delete "that" in everything I write as well 🙂 I'm convinced I can completely eliminate it, there's just not room on twitter for the 4 extra characters.

    I also hate when people misuse "their" and "there" – and less annoying, but still pretty bad "they're"

    Anyone care to point out mistakes in this comment? 😉

    Have a great weekend everyone!

  22. FamilyMan says:

    I can't seem to get through a week without hearing someone in the media use "fewer" and "less" incorrectly.

    "Good" and "well": Superheroes do good, the rest of us are doing well.

  23. Gregg Dourgarian says:

    Bogus peeve about 'truly unique'.

    It’s ok to say ‘truly unique’, ‘kind of unique’ and ‘really unique’.

    Never let anyone, not even an English major or Inigo Montoya or a copyblogger tell you different.

    Those fussy people would tell you otherwise and stammer about claiming that that you can’t qualify ‘unique’, that it is what it is – unique.

    But the reason they’re wrong [that it’s incorrect to say ‘truly unique’] is something I’ve never read anywhere so let me share my especially unique explanation: ‘truly’ is not qualifying ‘unique’ when we say ‘truly unique’, it’s qualifying an implicit reference to DOMAIN.

    Example: my daughter thinks my hair style is ‘really unique’ because it sticks up in odd spots. By adding the qualifier ‘really’ she is emphasizing that the DOMAIN of Dads that she is comparing me to is ‘really’ big. Of the ‘really’ big DOMAIN of Dads that she has in mind, my hair is unique.

    Which is true, for at least a few more years I hope.

  24. Susan Johnston says:

    Wow, thanks to everyone who weighed in! This has certainly sparked a lively discussion. Maybe Laurie will need to do a follow-up post.

  25. I just found this and I MUST comment, because I talk about the long slow slide of our language every day. Here are a couple I didn't see mentioned in your comments.

    "Every day" is NOT one word, unless it is used as an adjective, such as in "an everyday occurrence." It is popping up EVERYWHERE, in advertising, on TV, in print, as one word.

    Also, we've been dropping the "ly" off of our adverbs like crazy!! "You did that so beautiful!" ACK! It should be "You did that so beautifully."

    I think it all started when Apple came out with that billboard that stated, "Think Different."


  26. Catharine says:

    What gets me is when people write they where s/he belongs — the incorrect use of "they" in general, like when going to a garage and reporting "they said it was something under the hood," yikes.

  27. FamilyMan says:

    Catharine–have to say I understand this one, to hold off the "sexist language" debate if nothing else. Yeesh.

  28. JessicaCRB says:

    The only one of those I've ever seen mistaken is affect and effect. I'm sorry you're reading writing with so many mistakes…that's why I stopped reading the university's newspaper.

  29. Yes to all! Adding to these 'loose' v. 'lose'.

  30. I agree with all of these and add 'lose' v. 'loose'.

  31. Irregardless is a word and has been in use since approximately 1912, although it is widely regarded as non-standard or incorrect. Please see thus Wikipedia article for further info.


  32. First off, thank you for all very useful tips.

    There is a question:

    Why almost people on internet use "Don't have" in spite of "Haven't" ?

  33. Susan Johnston says:

    @Tania: I'm not sure what you mean, so I'm afraid I couldn't answer that one. Sorry!