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Some English words are often used in ways that are contentious among writers on usage and prescriptive commentators. The contentious usages are especially common in spoken English. While in some circles, the usages below may make the speaker sound uneducated or illiterate, in other circles the more standard or more traditional usage may make the speaker sound stilted or pretentious.

A [ top ]

Aggravate - Some prescriptivists have argued that this word should not be used in the sense of "to annoy" or "to oppress", but only to mean "to make worse". However, this proscription against "to annoy" is not rooted in history. According to AHDI, the "annoy" usage occurs in English as far back as the 17th century; furthermore, in Latin, from which the word was borrowed, both meanings were used. Sixty-eight percent of AHD4's Usage Panel approves of its use in "It's the endless wait for luggage that aggravates me the most about air travel."M-W mentions that while aggravate in the sense of "to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading" has been around since the 17th century, disapproval of that usage only appeared around 1870. RH states in its usage note under aggravate that "The two most common senses of aggravate are 'to make worse' and 'to annoy or exasperate.' Both senses first appeared in the early 17th century at almost the same time; the corresponding two senses of the noun aggravation also appeared then. Both senses of aggravate and aggravation have been standard since then." CHAMBERS cites this usage as "colloquial" and that it "is well established, especially in spoken English, although it is sometimes regarded as incorrect."* Disputed usage: It's the endless wait for luggage that aggravates me the most about air travel. Undisputed usage: Being hit on the head by a falling brick aggravated my already painful headache.

Ain't - originally a contraction of "am not", this word is widely used as a replacement for "aren't", "isn't", "haven't" and "hasn't" as well. While ain't has existed in the English language for a very long time, and it is a common, normal word in many dialects in both North America and the British Isles, it is not a part of standard English, and use in formal writing is not recommended by most usage commentators. Its unself-conscious use in speech may tend to mark the speaker as uneducated. Nevertheless, ain't is used by educated speakers and writers for deliberate effect, what Oxford American Dictionary describes as "tongue-in-cheek" or "reverse snobbery", and what Merriam-Webster Collegiate calls "emphatic effect" or "a consistently informal style".

Alibi - Some prescriptivists argue this cannot be used in the non-legal sense of "an explanation or excuse to avoid blame or justify action." AHD4 notes that this usage was acceptable to "almost half" of the Usage Panel, while most opposed the word's use as a verb. M-W mentions no usage problems, listing the disputed meaning second to its legal sense without comment. OED cites the non-legal noun and verb usages as colloquial and "orig[inally] U.S.". CHAMBERS deems this use "colloquial".

Alright - An alternative to "all right" that some consider illiterate but others allow. RH says that it probably arose in analogy with other similar word, such as altogether and already; it does concede the use in writing as "informal", and that all right "is used in more formal, edited writing." AHD4 flags alright as "nonstandard", and comments that this unacceptance (compared to altogether etc.) is "peculiar", and may be due to its relative recentness (altogether and already date back to the Middle Ages, alright only a little over a century). CHAMBERS refers to varying levels of formality of all right, deeming alright to be more casual; it recommends the use of all right "especially in writing for readers who are precise about the use of language."

Also - Some prescriptivists contend this word should not be used to begin a sentence. AHD4 says "63 percent of the Usage Panel found acceptable the example The warranty covers all power-train components. Also, participating dealers back their work with a free lifetime service guarantee." See also and & but, below.

Alternate - In British English this adjective means, according to OED and other sources, switching between two options or similar. It does not mean the same as alternative (see next), which OED specifically marks as an American meaning of alternate. In international English it is therefore thought better to observe the British distinction: then the meanings of alternative and alternate will be clear to everyone. (See meanings given at M-W; the same applies to the adverbs alternately and alternatively.)

Alternative - Some prescriptivists argue that alternative should be used only when the number of choices involved is exactly two. While AHD4 allows "the word's longstanding use to mean 'one of a number of things from which only one can be chosen' and the acceptance of this usage by many language critics", it goes on to state that only 49% of its Usage panel approves of its use as in "Of the three alternatives, the first is the least distasteful." Neither M-W nor RH mentions any such restriction to a choice of two. CHAMBERS qualifies its definition as referring to "strictly speaking, two, but often used of more than two, possibilities".

a.m./p.m. - These are Latin abbreviations for ante meridiem ("before noon") and post meridiem ("after noon"), adverbial phrases. Some prescriptivists argue that they therefore should not be used in English as nouns meaning "morning" and "afternoon", but this ignores ordinary nominalization features of English. AHD4 lists adjectival usage with "an A.M. appointment" and "a P.M. appointment." RH gives "Shall we meet Saturday a.m.?" without comment; it gives no corresponding example at p.m., so that usage can only be extrapolated.

Among/Amongst and Between - The traditionalist view is that between should only be used when there are only two objects for comparison; and among or amongst should be used for more than two objects. Most style guides and dictionaries do not support this advice, saying that between can be used to refer to something that is in the time, space or interval that separates more than two items. M-W says that the idea that between can be used only of two items is "persistent but unfounded" and AHD4 calls it a "widely repeated but unjustified tradition". The OED says "In all senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two". CHAMBERS says "It is acceptable to use between with reference to more than two people or things", although does state that among may be more appropriate in some circumstances. Undisputed usage: I parked my car between the two telegraph poles. Undisputed usage: You'll find my brain between my ears. Disputed usage: The duck swam between the reeds. Disputed usage: They searched the area between the river, the farmhouse, and the woods. Undisputed usage: We shared the money evenly amongst the three of us. Disputed usage: We shared the money between Tom, Dick, and me. Undisputed usage: My house was built among the gum trees.

Amount - Some prescriptivists argue amount should not be substituted for number. They recommend the use of number if the thing referred to is countable and amount only if it is uncountable. While RH acknowledges the "traditional distinction between amount and number, it mentions that "[a]lthough objected to, the use of amount instead of number with countable nouns occurs in both speech and writing, especially when the noun can be considered as a unit or group (the amount of people present; the amount of weapons) or when it refers to money (the amount of dollars paid; the amount of pennies in the till). (see also less) Disputed usage: I was amazed by the amount of people who visited my website. Undisputed usage: The number of people in the lift must not exceed 10. Undisputed usage: I was unimpressed by the amount of water consumed by the elephant.

And - Some prescriptivists argue that sentences should not begin with the word and on the argument that as a conjunction it should only join clauses within a sentence. AHD4 states that this stricture "has been ridiculed by grammarians for decades, and ... ignored by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates." RH states "Both and and but, and to a lesser extent or and so, are common as transitional words at the beginnings of sentences in all types of speech and writing'; it goes on to suggest that opposition to this usage "...probably stems from the overuse of such sentences by inexperienced writers." ENCARTA opines that said opposition comes from "too literal an understanding of the 'joining' function of conjunctions", and states that any overuse is a matter of poor style, not grammatical correctness. COED calls the usage "quite acceptable". Many verses of the King James Bible begin with and, as does William Blake's poem And did those feet in ancient time (a.k.a. Jerusalem). Fowler's Modern English Usage defends this use of "and". CHAMBERS states that "Although it is sometimes regarded as poor style, it is not ungrammatical to begin a sentence with and." See also also, above, and but, below.

Anxious - Some prescriptivists argue that this word should only be used in the sense of "worried" or "worrisome" (compare "anxiety"), but it has been used in the sense of eager for "over 250 years"; 52% of AHD4's Usage Panel accepts its use in the sentence "We are anxious to see the new show of contemporary sculpture at the museum." It also suggests that the use of anxious to mean eager may be mild hyperbole, as the use of dying in the sentence "I'm dying to see your new baby." RH states bluntly that "its use in the sense of 'eager'...is fully standard." M-W defines anxious as "3 : ardently or earnestly wishing <anxious to learn more> / synonym see EAGER" CHAMBERS gives "3 very eager • anxious to do well."

B [ top ]

Barbaric and barbarous - Barbaric applies to the culture of barbarians and can be positive ("barbaric splendor"); barbarous applies to the behavior of barbarians and is negative ("barbarous cruelty"). This is standard English usage. However, M-W equates the third meaning of "barbaric" with the third of "barbarous", that is, "mercilessly harsh or cruel"; COD11 and CHAMBERS list "savagely cruel" and "cruel and brutal; excessively harsh or vicious", respectively, as the first meanings for "barbaric". Only AHD4 disallows this usage, and without comment. Undisputed. The environment of the venue was barbaric. Undisputed. Terrorism is barbarous. Disputed. Capital punishment is a disgusting, barbaric measure.

But - Some prescriptivists argue that if and should not be used to begin sentences, then neither should but. These words are both conjunctions, so they believe that they should be used only to link clauses within a sentence. AHD4 states that "it may be used to begin a sentence at all levels of style."

C [ top ]

Can and May - Some prescriptivists argue that can refers to possibility and may refers to permissions, and insist on maintaining this distinction, although usage of can to refer to permission is pervasive in spoken and very frequent in written English. M-W notes: "Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts."AHD4 echoes this sentiment of formality, noting that only 21% of the Usage Panel accepted can in the example "Can I take another week to submit the application?". For its part, OED labels the use of can for may as "colloquial".

Comprise - Comprise means "to consist of" or "to include". A third meaning, "to compose or constitute" is sometimes attacked by usage writers. However, it is supported as sense 3 along with a usage note in M-W, and although AHD4 notes the usage as a "usage problem", its usage note says, "Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected." Undisputed usage: The English Wikipedia comprises more than 1 million articles. Disputed usage: The English Wikipedia is comprised of more than 1 million articles. Disputed usage: More than 1 million articles comprise the English Wikipedia. Disputed usage: Diatoms comprise more than 70% of all phytoplankton. Undisputed usage: Diatoms constitute more than 70% of all phytoplankton.

D [ top ]

Deprecate - The original meaning in English is "deplore" or "express disapproval of" (the Latin from which the word derives means "pray to avert evil", suggesting that some event would be a calamity). The word is now also used to mean "play down", "belittle" or "devalue", a shift that some prescriptivists disapprove of, as it suggests the word is being confused with the similar word depreciate; in fact, AHD4 states that in this sense deprecate has almost completely supplanted depreciate, however a majority of the dictionary's Usage Panel approved this sense. Its use with the approximate meaning to declare obsolete in computer jargon is also sometimes condemned.

Diagnose - Cochrane (2004) states that to "diagnose [someone] with a disease" is an incorrect usage of the verb diagnose, which takes the physician as subject and a disease as object (e.g. "to diagnose cancer"). In American English, according to AHD4 and M-W, the sense of "diagnose [someone] with a disease" is listed without comment or tag; however, for its part, RH does not list such a usage, with or without comment. For British English, COD11 offers "identify the medical condition of (someone): she was diagnosed as having epilepsy (2004); this usage, however, did not appear in editions as recently as the 1990s. CHAMBERS does not offer this sense at all. Disputed usage: Mr. Smith was diagnosed with lurgi. Undisputed usage: The doctor diagnosed lurgi.

Different. Standard usage in both England and America is "different from" (on the analogy of "to differ from"). In England this competes with "different to" (coined on the analogy of "similar to"). In America it competes with "different than" (coined on the analogy of "other than"). Undisputed usage: The American pronunciation of English is different from the British. Disputed usage: The American pronunciation of English is different to the British. Disputed usage: The American pronunciation of English is different than the British.

Disinterested. Standard usage is as a word for "unbiased", but some have also rendered it synonymous with "uninterested" or "apathetic". Undisputed usage: As their mutual best friend, I tried to remain disinterested in their argument so as not to anger either. Disputed usage: The key to attracting a member of the opposite sex is to balance between giving attention to him or her and appearing disinterested.

E [ top ]

Enormity - Frequently used as a synonym for "enormousness" or "immensity", but traditionally means "extreme wickedness". According to AHD4, this distinction has not always occurred historically, but is now supported by 59% of the dictionary's Usage Panel. COD11 states that enormity as a synonym for hugeness "is now broadly accepted as standard English." Although CHAMBERS lists "immenseness or vastness" as a meaning, it says it "should not be used" in that sense, commenting that it is encountered often because the word enormousness is "awkward"; it recommends using instead another word, such as hugeness, greatness, etc. Disputed usage: The enormity of the elephant astounded me. Traditional usage: The enormity of Stalin's purges astounds me.

F [ top ]

Fortuitously - Used by some interchangeably with fortunately, strictly speaking fortuitousness is a reference to an occurrence depending on chance. M-W notes that use of the word in sense of "fortunate" has been in standard use for at least 70 years and notes that the sense of "coming or happening by a lucky chance" is virtually unnoticed by usage critics.

G [ top ]

Gender - Gender is often used as a euphemism for sex in the sense of the biological or social quality, male and female. It is never used to refer to sexual intercourse. Gender traditionally refers to grammatical gender, a feature in the grammar of a number of different languages. Some prescriptivists argue that its use as a euphemism for sex is to be avoided as a genteelism; Fowler (p. 211) refers to it as "either as a jocularity...or a blunder." Others note that some writers use sex and gender in different but related senses, using sex to refer to biological characteristics and gender to refer to social roles and expectations based on sex. Those who use gender in this fashion frequently take an expansive view of the effects of social expectations on sex roles, and diminish the role of biology to purely physical characteristics. Those who use gender as a euphemism for sex may confuse readers who draw this distinction, or mislead readers by giving the impression that the writer has assumed or endorsed these beliefs. See gender identity, gender role The distinction is further confused by technical theatre and computer jargon, which refer to electrical connectors as having a male plug with pins inserted into a female socket. This use clearly refers to physical qualities of the connectors and not their social identities. See: gender changer

Good - Good is often used instead of well, as in "I'm doing good".

H [ top ]

Hoi polloi - The question surrounding hoi polloi is whether it is appropriate to use the article the preceding the phrase; it arises because hoi is the Greek word for "the" in the phrase and classical purists complain that adding the makes the phrase redundant: "the the common people". Foreign phrases borrowed into English are often reanalyzed as single grammatical units, requiring an English article in appropriate contexts. AHD4 says "The Arabic element al- means 'the', and appears in English nouns such as alcohol and alchemy. Thus, since no one would consider a phrase such as the alcohol to be redundant, criticizing the hoi polloi on similar grounds seems pedantic."

Hopefully - Some prescriptivists argue this word should not be used as an expression of confidence in an outcome; however, M-W classes hopefully with other words such as interestingly, frankly, and unfortunately (which are unremarkably used in a similar way) as disjuncts, and describes this usage as "entirely standard"[53]. AHD4, however, notes that opposition to this usage by their Usage Panels has grown from 56% to 73%, despite support for similar disjuncts (such as 60% support for the use of mercifully in "Mercifully, the game ended before the opponents could add another touchdown to the lopsided score"). AHD4 opines that this opposition is not to the use of these adverbs in general, but that this use of hopefully has become a "shibboleth". OED lists this usage without any "colloquial" or other label, other than to say "Avoided by many writers."See also the discussion of hopefully as a dangling modifier. Disputed usage: Hopefully I'll get that scholarship! Undisputed usage: The prisoner thought hopefully about the prospect for escape when he realized the guards accidentally left his cell unlocked.

L [ top ]

Less - Some prescriptivists argue that less should not be substituted for fewer. M-W notes "The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved <less than 100 miles> <an investment of less than $2000> <in 25 words or less> and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time <in less (or fewer) than four hours>" Disputed usage: This lane 12 items or less. Undisputed usage: We had fewer players on the team this season. Undisputed usage: There is less water in the tank now.

Like and as - Some prescriptivists object to the use of like as a conjunction, stating it is rather a preposition and that only "as" would be appropriate in this circumstance. M-W, however, cites like's use as a conjunction as standard since the 14th century, and opines that opposition to it is "perhaps more heated than rational" (see M-W's entry "like [7, conjunction]"). AHD4 says "Writers since Chaucer's time have used like as a conjunction, but 19th-century and 20th-century critics have been so vehement in their condemnations of this usage that a writer who uses the construction in formal style risks being accused of illiteracy or worse", and recommends using as in formal speech and writing. OED does not tag it as colloquial or nonstandard, but notes, "Used as conj[unction]: = 'like as', as. Now generally condemned as vulgar or slovenly, though examples may be found in many recent writers of standing." CHAMBERS lists the conjunctive use as "colloquial". Undisputed usage. He is an American as am I. Undisputed usage. He is an American like me. Undisputed usage. It looks as if this play will be a flop. Undisputed usage. This play looks like a flop. Disputed usage. He is an American like I am. Disputed usage. It looks like this play will be a flop.

Literally - Some prescriptivists argue literally should not be used as a mere emphatic, unless the thing to which it refers is actually true. It is used to disambiguate a possible metaphorical interpretation of a phrase. M-W does not condemn the second use, which means "in effect" or "virtually", but says "the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary". Disputed usage: The party literally went with a bang. (No, it did not, unless there was an actual explosion.) Undisputed usage: I literally ran more than 25 miles today. I ran a marathon.

Loan - The use of loan as a verb meaning "to give out a loan" is disputed, with lend being preferred for the verb form. AHD4 flatly states "[t]he verb loan is well established in American usage and cannot be considered incorrect"; M-W states "...loan is entirely standard as a verb". RH says "Sometimes mistakenly identified as an Americanism, loan as a verb meaning "to lend" has been used in English for nearly 800 years"; it further states that objections to this use "are comparatively recent". CHAMBERS defines the verb loan as "to lend (especially money)". OED merely states "Now chiefly U.S.", and COD11 includes the meaning without tag or comment. Undisputed usage. I lent him some money. Undisputed usage. Fill out the paperwork for a loan. Disputed usage. I loaned him some money.

M [ top ]

May and Might - "May" should only be used where the event in question is still possible, not for something that was possible at one stage in a historical narrative, or for a hypothetical possibility contrary to fact. Undisputed usage: My brother may have gone to China last week (perhaps he did) Disputed usage: If he had not been prevented, my brother may have gone to China last week (but he didn't) Undisputed usage: If he had not been prevented, my brother might have gone to China last week. Disputed usage: He thought it may be true (but it wasn't) Undisputed usage: He thought it might be true.

Meet - Some prescriptivists state that as a transitive verb in the context "to come together by chance or arrangement", meet (as in meet (someone)) does not require a preposition between verb and object; the phrase meet with (someone) is deemed incorrect. CHAMBERS flags this usage "US"; RH allows it in the sense of "to join, as for conference or instruction: I met with her an hour a day until we solved the problem."On the other hand, none of M-W, AHD4, or COD11 entertains this usage. NOTE: In the sense of fulfilling prerequisites or criteria (We met with the entry requirements), or that of encountering (Our suggestions may meet with opposition; the soldiers met with machine-gun fire), the verb phrase meet with is not in dispute. Disputed usage: I will meet with you tonight. Undisputed usage: I will meet you tonight.

Momentarily - Traditionally, momentarily means "for a moment", but its use to mean "in a moment" is sometimes disputed. M-W and RH give this latter usage a standard entry without comment, while OED and CHAMBERStag it "N.Amer." AHD4 has a usage note indicating that 59% of their Usage Panel deems this usage "unacceptable". Disputed usage: Your feature presentation will begin momentarily. Undisputed usage: The flash from the atom bomb momentarily lit up the night sky.

N [ top ]

Nauseous - Traditionally nauseous means "causing nausea" (synonymous with "nauseating"); it is commonly used now as a synonym for "queasy," that is, having the feeling of nausea. AHD4 notes the traditional view, stating that 72% of the Usage Panel preferred nauseated over nauseous to mean "affected with nausea"; however, 88% of that same panel preferred nauseating to nauseous to mean "causing nausea"; in other words, a maximum of only 28% prefers nauseous in either case. It also states that in common usage, nauseous is synonymous with nauseated, but deems this usage "incorrect". M-W, however, asserts that "[t]hose who insist that nauseous ... is an error for nauseated are mistaken". Both M-W and AHD4 accept that nauseous is supplanting nauseated for "feeling nausea", and in turn being replaced by nauseating for "causing nausea" in general usage; they only differ on the correctness of the change. RH states "The two literal senses of nauseous [...] appear in English at almost the same time in the early 17th century, and both senses are in standard use at the present time. Nauseous is more common than nauseated in the sense 'affected with nausea', despite recent objections by those who imagine the sense to be new." For their part, CHAMBERS lists the sense of causing nausea first and affected with nausea second, while COD11 gives the affliction first and causation second; both dictionaries list the entries without comment. OED goes further, tagging its "nauseated" usage as "Orig[inally] U.S.", but demoted its "nauseating" usage to "literary". OED also notes that the original (now obsolete) sense of the word in English was "inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish". Curiously, this oldest seventeenth-century meaning (inclined to nausea), while distinct from the disputed twentieth-century usage (afflicted by nausea), more closely resembles the latter than it does the prescribed meaning (causing nausea). Undisputed usage: That smell is nauseous. Disputed usage: That smell is making me nauseous.

...There are two domains where knowing the distinction in terms leads to better usage: in medicine as opposed to the derogatory informal usage. For example, when a patient feels nausea, the doctor considers this person nauseated. When someone feels repulsed by someone, they are apt to characterize the offensive person as nauseous or nauseating. Said in another way, when someone has the pain of migraine, they frequently admit to nausea and are considered nauseated. When someone makes an unwonted overture of affection, that person is described as a nauseous person or a nauseating person.

Not - Some prescriptivists argue not should not conclude a sentence. Others note that such usage is old enough and has been utilized by many of the best writers in the English language. OED attributes this usage as far back as 1420, and cites examples by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Eliot, John Fletcher, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson, Benjamin Jowett, Somerset Maugham, Alexander Pope, Anthony Trollope, William Tynedale, John Wyclif, and others.Neither M-W nor AHD4 notes any proscriptions on usage. Disputed usage: I would think not.

O [ top ]

Overly - FOWLER notes that some editors regard this as an "Americanism". The American source M-W's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1989, eventually settles on accepting it, but has this to say: "Bache 1869 and Ayres 1881 succinctly insulted contemporaries who used this word, calling them vulgar and unschooled. Times have changed: modern critics merely insult the word itself. Follett 1966, for example, claims that overly is useless, superfluous, and unharmonious, and should be replaced by the prefix over-. Bryson 1984 adds that 'when this becomes overinelegant ... the alternative is to find another adverb [...]'." The prefix over- is safer, and accepted by all: "He seemed over-anxious." M-W, AHD4, and RH include the word without comment, and OED notes only "After the Old English period, rare (outside Scotland and North America) until the 20th cent."

P [ top ]

Pleasantry originally means a joke or witticism. Now often used to mean polite conversation in general (as in the phrase "exchange of pleasantries").

Presently - Traditionally, presently is held to mean "after a short period of time" or "soon". It is also used in the sense "at the present time" or "now", a usage which is disapproved of by many prescriptivists. RH dates the sense of "now" back to the 15th century - noting it is "in standard use in all varieties of speech and writing in both Great Britain and the United States" - and dates the appearance of the sense of "soon" to the 16th century. It considers the modern objection to the older sense "strange", and comments that the two senses are "rarely if ever confused in actual practice. Presently meaning 'now' is most often used with the present tense (The professor is presently on sabbatical leave) and presently meaning 'soon' often with the future tense (The supervisor will be back presently)."M-W mentions the same vintage for the sense of "now", and that "it is not clear why it is objectionable."AHD4 states that despite its use "nowadays in literate speech and writing" that there is still " lingering prejudice against this use". In the late 1980s, only 50% of the dictionary's Usage Panel approved of the sentence General Walters is … presently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. COD11 lists both usages without comment; CHAMBERS merely flags the sense of "now" as "N Amer, especially US". Disputed usage: I am presently reading Wikipedia. Undisputed usage: I will be finished with that activity presently.

R [ top ]

Refute - The traditional meaning of refute is "disprove" or "dispel with reasoned arguments". It is now often used as a synonym for "deny". The latter sense is listed without comment by M-W and AHD4, while CHAMBERS tags it as colloquial.COD11 states that "Traditionalists object to [the use of refute as deny], but it is now widely accepted in standard English." However, RH does not mention this use at all.

Relatively - Literally meaning "compared to", some now use relatively to mean "moderately" or "somewhat." AHD4 does not list this usage at all; M-W has apparently blended the two usages in one. Disputed usage: That man was relatively annoying. Undisputed usage: Though relatively harmless when compared to dimethylmercury, mercury (II) oxide is still quite toxic.

S [ top ]

Scotch, Scots, and Scottish. Formerly, English people used "Scotch" where Scottish people used "Scottish". The current convention is as follows: "Scottish" for people "Scotch" for things (especially whisky) "Scots" for institutions (Scots law, Scots language)

Seek - This means 'look for', but is used to mean 'try' or 'want'. Highfalutin, and criticised by Fowler in the entry "Formal Words". Disputed usage: '...we did seek to resolve the Iraq crisis by peaceful means.... those who seek to emulate his legacy of murder.... the Conservatives seek to undermine that future...'. Undisputed usage: 'Seek and ye shall find.'

T [ top ]

Than - Than is the subject of a longstanding dispute as to its status as a preposition or conjunction; see than.

They - Prescriptivists regard this as a plural pronoun, but the word is now commonly used, especially in speech and informal writing, as a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun (which modern English otherwise lacks). The alternative "he or she" can sound awkward, and the original use of "he" to refer to any individual of unspecified gender is now mostly obsolete.[citation needed] Another possibility is the use of "one" in replacement of "they", which is common but awkward. Disputed usage: A person is rude if they show no respect for their hosts. Undisputed usage: One is rude if one shows no respect for one's hosts. Undisputed usage: Many people have told me that they are satisfied with their food.

Thusly - Thusly (AHD4 suggests) was originally coined by educated writers to make fun of uneducated persons trying to sound genteel. Thusly, however, diffused into popular usage. Some people accept it as an adverb in its own right, while others believe thus should be used in all cases. The word "thusly" appears with no associated usage notes in M-W;COD11 tags it as "informal", with the entry thus tagged as "literary or formal". CHAMBERS does not list the word at all, and it is unknown in British usage.

U [ top ]

Unique - Some prescriptivists argue that unique only means "sole" or "unequaled", but most dictionaries give a third meaning: "unusual", which can be qualified by very or somewhat, as in "The theme of the party was somewhat unique"; see comparison.

W [ top ]

Whilst and While - Penguin Working Words recommends while only, and notes that whilst is old-fashioned. Cambridge Guide to English Usage and M-W's Webster's Guide to English Usage comment on its regional character, and note that it is rare in American usage. It is therefore safer to use only while, in international English. (See the article While for further sources deprecating the use of whilst, and cautioning about uses of while.)

Who - Some prescriptivists argue that "who" should be used only as a subject pronoun, the corresponding object pronoun being "whom". Strictly speaking, using who instead of whom is substituting a subjective pronoun for an objective pronoun and hence is the same as using she instead of her (e.g., I talked to she today.). Most people never use whom in spoken English and instead use who for all cases. Some, however, still do use whom in their everyday speech and might recognize the use of who in its place as substandard. FOWLER has an extensive entry on who and whom including several quotes from major publications where whom is used incorrectly. Undisputed usage: You are talking to whom? Disputed usage: You are talking to who? Undisputed usage: To whom are you talking? Disputed usage: To who are you talking? Disputed usage: ... far more hostile to Diana whom she believes betrayed the Prince of Wales - Independent Mag., 1993 (FOWLER) Undisputed usage: ... far more hostile to Diana who she believes betrayed the Prince of Wales

Whoever - This extension of who (see above) along with its object form whomever is attended by the same uncertainties as who along with whom, and is discussed in the same sources. (See the relevant section at Who.) Undisputed usage: Give it to whoever wants it. Undisputed usage: Give it to whoever you think should have it. Undisputed usage: Give it to whomever you choose to give it to. Undisputed usage: Give it to whoever you choose to give it to. Disputed usage: Give it to whomever wants it. Disputed usage: Give it to whomever you think should have it.



- Cochrane, James (2004). Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English. Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks. ISBN 1-4022-0331-4

- Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition (2004). Soanes, Catherine et al (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860864-0

- Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. Fourth U.S. Printing, 1950.

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