A Harvard Linguist Reveals the Most Commonly Misused Words

Updated 02/01/18
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In our digital world, the way in which we spell and use words has grown increasingly informal. With that, some meanings have been lost in translation entirely, as recently highlighted by Harvard linguist and best-selling author Steven Pinker in an article on Business Insider. While the incorrect use of everyday words may seem like a minimal transgression, doing so in job interviews, at networking events, or when meeting your significant other’s family can serve as an embarrassing faux pasnot to mention a dismal reflection of your grammatical prowess.

In Pinker’s own words, these are the three most commonly misused words in the English language.

  1. Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge. / Why are you so uninterested in my story?
  2. Adverse means “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: There were adverse effects. / I’m not averse to doing that.
  3. Simplistic means “naively” or “overly simple.” It does not mean “simple” or “pleasingly simple.” Correct: His simplistic answer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the material. / She liked the chair’s simple look.

    That being said, there’s a fine line between being a language snob and simply making an effort to be grammatically correct. Above all, writing and speaking are about communicating your ideas in a clear and concise manner—always keeping your audience top of mind.

    For more, shop Pinker’s best-selling book, The Sense of Style, and be sure to share your review with us.

    This post was originally published on September 23, 2016, and has since been updated.

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