8 words that may not mean what you think they mean

Inspired by ‘The Princess Bride,’ the author sets us straight on the appropriate way to use common words. (‘Inconceivable’ is not one of them.)

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on PR Daily in May.

In one of the early scenes of the film “The Princess Bride,” a mysterious man in black is pursuing the kidnapper Vizzini.

[Editor’s note: If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading this article right now—slap yourself across the face—and go watch it.]

When Inigo Montoya (one of Vizzini’s hired hands) points out that they are being followed, Vizzini responds that it is “inconceivable.” With the man in black closing in, and Vizzini still insisting that this is “inconceivable,” Inigo says to him: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Here are eight words (beyond “inconceivable”) that may not mean what you think they mean:

1. Comprise

To comprise is to enclose or include. Comprise is used in the active voice; therefore, “comprised of” is not correct. For example, The university comprises six colleges and nine divisions.

Comprise is often confused with compose, which means to make up or be a constituent of. Compose can be used in the passive voice. The company is composed of four employees.

2. Forgo

Forgo means to do without, bypass, or abstain from. It is often confused with forego (as in “a foregone conclusion”), which means to precede. For instance, Liz was so engrossed in her book that she decided to forgo lunch and read instead.

3. Imply

Imply is often used incorrectly as a synonym for infer. To imply is to speak indirectly or suggest.You are implying that bank robbery is our only alternative. To infer is to surmise or conclude. I infer from your statement that you agree with this solution. Remember that one draws an inference.

4. Less

Less is often confused with fewer. Use less to refer to quantities that can’t be counted and fewer to refer to numbers.There were less people in the office today is incorrect, because people can be counted. Instead say: There were fewer people in the office today.

5. Literally

Literally means “in the exact meaning of the word(s),” and use of this word permits no figurative use or exaggeration. For instance, this sentence—Editing that article literally killed me—means that you died at your desk.

6. Poisonous

Poisonous—often confused with venomous—means a plant, animal, or substance capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body. Venomous means capable of injecting venom.

A rattlesnake is not itself poisonous, because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous, but not venomous.

7. Precision

In science writing, precision is how close a set of measured values are to each other. Precision is often confused with accuracy, which means how close a measured value is to the true value. Confused? As explained on Mathisfun.com, “If you are playing soccer and you always hit the left goal post instead of scoring, then you are not accurate, but you are precise!”

8. Unique

Unique means being the only one of its kind, unlike anything else. It does not mean simply “unusual” or “rare.” For example, something isn’t “very unique.” It’s just unique.

As part of the tour, we were allowed to see the author’s unique existing handwritten manuscript.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, unique is included in a set of adjectives whose meaning is absolute and cannot be modified by adverbs conveying degree, such as “really,” “quite,” or “very.” Something is either unique or not; therefore, “very unique” is meaningless. Other “absolute adjectives” include complete, equal, infinite, and perfect.

Readers, care to share any other commonly misunderstood words?

Laura Hale Brockway an Austin-based writer and editor and is the author of the grammar/usage/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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