Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

It’s funny how we say things that we’ve heard all of our lives, but don’t give much thought as to the meaning of the phrase. Listed below are several of these cases in point. How many of these do you say wrong?

I could care less VS I couldn’t care less
What you think it means: "I couldn't care less."
What it actually means: You actually do care.

It begs the question
Would you think it means: To ask or raise a question
What it actually means: To use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.

Let's table this
What you think it means: To discuss something later
What it actually means: In the United States, it means what you think it does. But it means the exact opposite -- "let's discuss this right now" -- in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.

I did a 360 VS I did a 180
What you think it means: Completely changing your opinion.
What it actually means: Your opinion changed, but then changed back to your original opinion.

PIN number VS just PIN
What you think it means: A non-repetitive way to refer to your personal identification number
What it actually means: That you're being redundant. Especially when you use your PIN number at the ATM machine.

Lion's share
What you think it means: The greatest of multiple shares
What it actually means: The phrase originally comes from an Aesop's Fable in which the lion took all -- not the largest -- of the shares.

I am nauseous.VS I am nauseated.
What you think it means: I have a sick feeling in my stomach.
What it actually means: "I make other people sick," the correct term would have been "I am nauseated."

Here are some words that you'll see used incorrectly on a daily basis.


People think it means: Regardless.
Actually means: nothing.


People think it means: To skim over or browse something.
Actually means: Almost the opposite of that.

Peruse means "to read with thoroughness or care." If you peruse a book, you leave no page unturned. This makes sense when you consider the Middle English per use, meaning "to wear out or use up."


People think it means: Any kind of amusing coincidence.
Actually means: An outcome that is the opposite of what you'd expect.


People think it means: "Spotless" or "as good as new."
Actually means: "Ancient, primeval; in a state virtually unchanged from the original."


People think it means: Unperturbed, not worried.
Actually means: Utterly perplexed or confused. It comes from the Latin non plus (a state in which nothing more can be done).


People think it means: Mildly amused.
Actually means: Bewildered or confused.


People think it means: Enormous.
Actually means: Outrageous or heinous on a grand scale.


People think it means: A lot of something.
Actually means: Too much of something, an over-abundance.

People think it means: useless or unable to perform its function                  
Actually means: an excess of something, that something is "surplus to requirements" and no longer needed, or that it is obsolete.

Here are some confusing combinations:
Your means "belonging to you."
You're is a contraction of "you are."

Whose is an interrogative or relative pronoun.
Who’s is a contraction for “who is”.

Use who when it is the subject of the sentence,                                                               
whom when it is the object. Replace the word "who/whom" with "he/him." If "he" is correct, "who" is correct. If "him" is correct, "whom" is correct.

To indicates direction.
Too means "also."
Two is the number after one but before three.

Their is a possessive meaning "belonging to them."
There indicates position.
They're is a contraction of "they are."

that is specific,                                                                                  
whereas which is general.

Than is used when you're making a comparison between two or more things.                 
Then is used to indicate that something happens after something else, often with a cause-and-effect relationship. Also use after "if" clauses.

Sight involves your eyes being able to see.                                                                    
Site is a location.                                                                                      
Cite is to give credit for a source

When used as a verb, to set means "to place" or "to adjust to a value",                                     
whereas to sit means, "to be seated".

A roll is:
a small piece of bread                                                                                             
a piece of paper that has been turned into a tube                                                                             
a verb meaning "to turn (paper) into a tube"                                                                                
a verb meaning "to turn over and over"                                                                                
a list of people in a group
A role is a part in a play or the function you perform in a certain group.

A piece is a portion or fragment of something.                                                            
Peace is the opposite of war.                                                                                        
Peas are small green vegetables.

Past is an adjective meaning "before now." It is also a noun meaning "the time before now."
Passed is a past-participle form of the verb "to pass" meaning "to give" or "to move".
Some people also use it euphemistically for death; My father has passed.

More should be used when comparing exactly two things. For example: You have more ice cream than Martha.
Most should be used when comparing more than two things. For example: Sandy has the most ice cream in the room.

Lay means you have to lay an object.                                                                    
Lie means that it does not take an object; it is something a person does.                                    
However; lay is also the past-tense form of lie.                                                                  
The past-tense form of lay however is laid.

An isle is a small island in a string of small islands.                                                           
An Aisle is corridor through which one may pass from one place to another.

Something is implied if it is a suggestion intended by the person speaking,                        
A conclusion is inferred if it is reached by the person listening.

Unlike most possessives, its does not contain an apostrophe.
But with its/it's you need to remember that an apostrophe often replaces a letter. If the word is it's, ask, "What letter has been removed?" The letter i from it is has been replaced by the apostrophe.

A hoard is a store or accumulation of things.                                                             
A horde is a large group of people.

historic describes an event of importance—one that shaped history or is likely to do so. Historical merely describes something that happened in the past.

The airplane is in the hangar; the coat is on the hanger.

To hang something or someone in the present tense, one uses the same form. In the past, however, pictures are hung and criminals are hanged.

well is an adverb; He did that well.                                                                  
good is an adjective; That was a good dinner.

Both these words mean "more far." Farther means “more far” in terms that can be measured.
Further refers to more abstract differences, like the difference between two people's points of view.

Emigration is the process of leaving a country;                                                         
immigration is the process of arriving in a country.

To be disinterested in something means to not be biased about something.                               
To be uninterested means to not be interested in or intrigued by something.

A desert is a dry sandy place.                                                                        
Dessert is the sweet stuff you generally eat after a meal.

Disburse means "to give out", especially money.                                                  
Disperse means "to scatter".

To diffuse is to disperse randomly, whereas to defuse is to remove the fuse from a bomb, or in general to render a situation less dangerous.
Diffuse can also be used as an adjective, meaning, "not concentrated".

Dawn is frequently used to mean "sunrise", but technically it means the twilight period immediately before sunrise.

To assure is to intend to give the listener confidence,                                         
to ensure is to make certain of,                                                                  
and to insure is to purchase insurance.

An altar is a table or stand upon which religious ceremonies are performed.                   
Alter means "to change"

Acute means "sharp", as an acute illness is one that rapidly worsens and reaches a crisis.          
A chronic illness may also be a severe one, but it is long-lasting or lingering.

Affect is a verb meaning "to influence" or "to cause change in."
Effect is a noun meaning "the result or outcome."

Accept is a verb meaning "to agree to" or "to adapt to"
Except is a preposition or conjunction meaning roughly "unless" or "if not."


Margaret Fieland said...

Great article, and terrific list. Speaking of British versus American English, many years ago I was traveling through Spain and met an Australian woman with whom I hung out for a few days. She related to me the story of her visit to Rome, where she visited the Vatican with a group of American Seminary students. After a day spent touring, they found a sidewalk and sank into seats around an outdoor table when my friend exclaimed,
"Golly, I'm knocked up."

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Great examples. Thanks!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Wow. I am going to have to keep this as a reference.

Karen Cioffi said...

Rebecca, great post and what a list!

Debbie A Byrne said...

Yes! All good points.

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