10 Words You Literally Didn’t Know You Were Getting Wrong

Original header image by Andrea Piacquadio

10 MORE Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong

You aced your vocab tests when you were in school. You know the difference between affect and effect. You don’t need autocorrect to add a space between a and lot. In short, you are a genius competent English speaker.

But even those of us who actively try to get it all right sometimes still get it wrong. Take the VP of the USA, for example. During his speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, he misused the word literally at least a dozen times. Thanks to his mega-gaffe, we all now know how NOT to use the word literally since literally literally means you are being literal. Who knew? (Ok, lots of people knew…) Unfortunately, literally is only one word that people frequently misuse. Below is a list of 10 words that you might want to revisit.

Assent vs. Consent

While both are verbs and both mostly mean to agree, assent implies that the person who agrees is enthusiastic about it. Consent, on the other hand, is more neutral or even negative.  Examples:

As a condition of employment as nanny for a high ranking Microsoft family, Sara had to consent to keep her new employer a secret. 

When the teacher suggested that the students skip taking the math test and take an extra recess instead, the class quickly assented.

*Remember not to confuse assent with ascent. Ascent means a climb and is not even close in meaning to either assent or consent.

Breach vs. Breech

Considering I was a breech birth myself (TMI?), I should have known this one, but I never thought about it until I was about to give birth to my own daughter (who, thankfully, was not breech. TMI, again? Sorry.) Breach, as a noun, means a gap or violation such as a breach of contract or a breach in the dam. The verb breach means to break, break open, or break through. Breech, on the other hand, literally means the lower part  or back of something, typically a human, that comes after the back but before the legs. Yes, breech means ass. So, breeches are ass-covers. I’m not sure I’ve heard the word breeches used in anything but writing that is decades old, so you can’t be blamed if you didn’t put that together before now. I sure didn’t. So while most babies have to breach the birth canal to enter this world, only the breech baby does it ass-first. (Sorry for the visual, but I bet you won’t forget this one now.)

*Try not confuse breach with broach either. To broach means to make a hole in something from which to draw liquid or to raise for discussion.

Compelled vs. Impelled

The difference between these two is that one is voluntary (impelled) while the other is not (compelled).  Consider these two examples:

The thief was compelled to divulge the location of the stolen goods.


The thief was impelled to divulge the location of the stolen goods.

The use of compel here means the thief was forced to tell where he hid the loot. Though not stated, the reader might assume that a judge or police officer threatened a worse punishment if the thief stayed quiet than if he confessed. The use of impel means the thief gave up the location of the stolen property voluntarily. Though not stated, you could infer that he probably felt guilty, so he confessed to unburden his conscience.

Infectious vs. Contagious

Just in time for flu season, knowing the difference between these will help you craft a perfect “out sick” message to your manager. As you probably know, something that is contagious is something that spreads by direct or nearly direct contact, and it refers to transmission. Something that is infectious may or may not be contagious because infectious refers to cause. You can be infected by a sickness that is not contagious, tetanus, for example, or pneumonia. Both are infectious but not contagious.

Deserts vs. Deserts vs. Desserts

I am pretty sure I’m not the only person who imagines someone getting a pie in the face when I hear the phrase “he got his just deserts.” In this case, deserts (spoken with the emphasis on the second syllable) is not the plural of desert (spoken with an emphasis on the first syllable.) A desert is that arid landscape where the coyote chases the roadrunner while a desert is something you deserve (for better or for worse). A dessert (spelled with two s’s and with an emphasis on the second syllable) is a sweet treat usually enjoyed after a meal. It’s likely that you only hear the word deserts (emphasis on the second syllable) in the commonly used phrase “to get your just deserts.” The phrase can mean something positive, but, more often than not, just deserts are the justified and deserved negative consequences of someone’s negative actions. For example:

Bernie Madoff’s conviction and imprisonment was his just deserts for stealing money from his investors.

Disinterested vs. Uninterested

I see these used interchangeably, but they are actually very different. If you are not interested in or bored by something, you are uninterested. Disinterested means you do not have a financial or personal stake in something. Disinterested means “impartial” or “neutral”.

Grisly vs. Grizzly vs. Grizzled

This is another case where these words seem like they would be more closely related. The term grisly means horrific or gruesome as in grisly murder scene. While it seems reasonable that the meanest bear in the woods might be named for the mess he leaves after chowing down on some hiker, grizzly actually means “greyish”.  Grizzly bears are named for the greyish tips on their fur. I, for one, don’t ever want to get close enough to a grizzly bear to find out if his fur is tipped with grey. I’ll take their word for it. Grizzled also means “greyish” and is typically used to describe people. A man with a greying beard could be described as grizzled.

Incredible vs. Incredulous

While the word incredible actually means “unbelievable,” over time, it has come to signify that something is especially good. Incredulous, on the other hand, has a more negative connotation; it means “skeptical.” For example:

The incredulous crowd watched as a man dressed in a red and blue body suit scaled a building without any ropes.

Literally vs. Figuratively

Last month, Joe Biden sent the grammarian crowd into a tizzy by misusing the word literally multiple times in his speech at the Democratic National Convention. For the record, literally means “actually; without exaggeration.” For some reason, this word gets used all the time to mean figuratively, which is the exact opposite concept. It's unknown to me how this particular usage came to be so popular--maybe it just rolls off the tongue better than figuratively, or maybe it’s like using the word badass to describe something as incredibly good and desirable. Who knows why, but one thing is for certain; Biden literally needs to hire a new speech writer.

If you are a fan of the show Parks and Recreation, then you have probably heard the character Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) abuse the word literally. Like Biden, Chris frequently misuses the word (“I have a resting heart rate of 28 beats per minute. The doctors who studied me said that my heart could, literally, pump jet fuel up into a jet.”), but his character is so obnoxiously upbeat that on some occasions, you actually believe him when he says “Biking for charity is literally one of my interests on Facebook.” Either way, the term fits the character perfectly, which is why it's funny whether he uses it correctly or not. For the rest of you, though, unless you literally mean exactly what you are saying, don’t use the word literally. If you have to use SOMETHING, try the word actually.

I.e. vs. E.g.

I admit that I have confused these for years, but finally, FINALLY, I memorized them. As you know, they are both abbreviations. As you might suspect, they both stand for Latin phrases. I.e. stands for id est (“that is”) and e.g. stands for exempli gratia (“for example”). Since NO ONE speaks Latin anymore, it’s best to find another way to remember these. Look no further than Grammar Girl for a good way to remember the difference. I.e. means “in other words” and should therefore introduce information that clarifies the statement made in the rest of the sentence. For example:

I really don’t have time to make dinner tonight; i.e., you should pick up a pizza.

The expression i.e. is great for introducing parenthetical statements because it sets off a bit of nonessential or extra information. You can actually enclose it with parentheses or not, depending on how much distance you want to put between the two concepts.

E.g. is easier to remember—think “egg sample” in order to connect your brain to “for example.” It’s silly, but it works. E.g.:

I really don’t have time to make dinner tonight. Can you pick up something, e.g., pizza or takeout?

In this example, e.g. sets off a couple of options, or examples, of dinner items that can be picked up. Unlike the sentence using i.e., which specifies what dinner item to pick up, the e.g. sentence offers some examples, and, because they are just examples, it’d be perfectly fine to assume the person this statement is directed to might choose to pick up something not listed, like hamburgers.

Your Mission

Do all of us a favor (and avoid "pulling a Biden"), and learn what your words actually (literally--haha) mean. We all sometimes get over-confident about language, but sometimes bad habits can lead to serious confusion (and mockery on a national scale). What's a word you used to confuse? How did you finally learn to get it right? Share your experience in the comments below. You never know, you might help someone else to finally learn a word they have misused for years.

Want to take your writing to the next level? Check out our slate of online workshops.

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Camicia Bennett's picture
Camicia Bennett from Florida is reading Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See October 3, 2012 - 12:29pm

'Assent' should really be used more often. Especially when talking about sex. 

savigliotti's picture
savigliotti October 3, 2012 - 1:30pm

I had a professor in college for whom English was a second language. I fought with him for 20 minutes one time because he kept on saying that the general media has an "agenda" instead of "priorities" in terms of the amount of time they devote to different types of news. I know that people used to refer to an "agenda" when talking about a schedule, or a priority list, as in, what's on your agenda for today? but these days, say the media has an "agenda" and you automatically think propoganda and big brother. 

Nyarlathotep5150's picture
Nyarlathotep5150 October 3, 2012 - 1:33pm

  You should add Decimate vs. Devastate. I've never heard the former used correctly.

Nyarlathotep5150's picture
Nyarlathotep5150 October 3, 2012 - 1:47pm

@Savigliotti: You should have argued with him over saying "an agenda." Agenda is plural, agendum is singular. Just like there are no internet forums, there are internet fora.

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide October 3, 2012 - 1:51pm

I literally (used correctly) just discovered the difference between impelled and compelled last night while reading Poe's Mesmeric Revelation.  He used the word impelled and I looked it up to see if it meant the same thing as compelled.  Turns out it doesn't.  According to Merriam-Webster, impel means to urge or drive forward or on, by or as if by, the exertion of strong moral pressure (the idea being that one's own morals are responsible for the action), whereas compel means to drive or urge forcefully or irrestibly; to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure (the action is the result of some outside force or pressure).

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 3, 2012 - 2:06pm

I chose to use 'impel' instead of 'compel' in a review I just wrote, because of this article.

wgarvey812's picture
wgarvey812 October 3, 2012 - 2:14pm

I literally never misuse any words

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. October 3, 2012 - 2:25pm

Is that a typo in disinterested/uninterested:

Disinterested means you do not have a financial or personal stake in something. Disinterested means “impartial” or “neutral”

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart October 3, 2012 - 2:29pm

You are the best, Josh! Glad this article helped. I am pretty sure I have abused the word literally in my past. A pile of old notes passed back and forth between me and my best friend in high school is probably damning evidence that I did. "Oh. my. God. That guy is literally the cutest guy I've ever seen!"


And Christopher, that is pretty interesting that you JUST looked up the compel/impel difference last night. What a coinky-dink! Love it....

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart October 3, 2012 - 2:33pm

@bryanhowie. No that was just the effect of my trying to keep this article from being too long. Disinterested can mean both that you do not have a financial or personal stake in something and/ or that you are “impartial” or “neutral”.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart October 3, 2012 - 2:38pm

@bryanhowie. Sorry for the confusion...

S Jenan's picture
S Jenan October 3, 2012 - 2:36pm

Into the breech!

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart October 3, 2012 - 3:15pm

@Nyarlathotep5150 Ha! I always say "an agenda". See, I act all high and mighty, but really I am just a sheep, blindly following other people and thier bad habits. :) You just inspired me to write a column entitled "10 Words You Didn't Know Were Actually Plural/Singular." Thanks for reading.

Erros's picture
Erros October 3, 2012 - 4:18pm

I feel like a lot of the times people are using "literally" they are using it knowing full well the appropriate definition. If I say "I am so hungry that I could literally eat a horse," of course I would not really do so. What I am doing is using a hyperbole to exaggerate what I could "literally" do. If I said "I am so hungry that I could figuratively eat a horse," the message loses some of its power.

Stefano Melis's picture
Stefano Melis October 3, 2012 - 4:26pm

I believe that the most abused and misused term in the english language is gealous where most often it is mistakenly used instead of envious

It actually really gets to my nerves that so many tv writers misuse the term which in turn instills it in popular "culture".

Wordsmith Long's picture
Wordsmith Long October 3, 2012 - 4:47pm

Easier memory trick for IE/EG:

IE= in explanation

EG= Example given

Wordsmith Long's picture
Wordsmith Long October 3, 2012 - 4:48pm

Double posted, sorry.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart October 3, 2012 - 5:09pm

@Erros: I totally get what you are saying, but if I was your professor, I'd advise you to say "I'm so hungry that I could eat a horse." The hyperbolic nature of this statement is enough. (Duh, no one expects you will actually eat a horse.) Using either "literally" incorrectly or "figuratively/actually" correctly, in this case, is wordy and redundant anyway. In addition to being used incorrectly by so many people, using "literally" in anything but the strictest sense is unecessary. The word has come to be so used and abused that it has nearly lost all meaning. If you use it sparingly and correctly, you can help renew the power in this word.  If someone were to go through Biden's speech and simply cross out every use of the word "literally", it would have been a much stronger speech. Using words like "literally" is a sure way to waterdown your speech and writing. It sounds the same as "like" used as an iterjection. "I am like so hungry that I could like eat a horse." Ugh. Keep it simple, and avoid "literally" "figuratively" "actually" etc. whenever you can.

Sarah McClure's picture
Sarah McClure October 3, 2012 - 5:21pm

I think "literally" is generally misused in an ironic fashion. It's used to further exaggerate a point, despite doing the opposite.

Svengalien's picture
Svengalien October 3, 2012 - 5:36pm

I have known "amuse" and "bemuse" to cause some people difficulty.  However, I have come a cropper with "misfortune" and "unfortunate" before now and choose to forget the days when I'd say "have at a guess" instead of "hazard a guess".  The latter is not inkeeping with the theme of the article so much but I know I'm not the only one to have made that mistake.

Gina Leiss's picture
Gina Leiss October 3, 2012 - 10:50pm

My pet peeve is nauseous vs. nauseated.  Nauseous = to cause nausea.  Nauseated = to suffer from nausea.  In modern times they've pretty much become interchangeable, but I still prefer to use "I'm nauseated" if I'm feeling ill.

Arden's picture
Arden October 3, 2012 - 11:04pm

At one point i've been using "in memorial" when i really wanted to say "immemorial" until someone had the audacity to tell me that i've been using it incorrectly. I even tried to stand my ground but in the end a quick webster lookup is all it took to straighten it out. 

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs October 3, 2012 - 11:26pm

Whoa. "Just deserts" blew my mind. I don't think I've ever seen it written before. I always assumed it was an idiom. Still seems like a cliche though.

David de Carvalho's picture
David de Carvalho October 3, 2012 - 11:30pm

A word that Americans regularly misuse is "momentarily". Americans use it as if to say, "in a short while" or "very soon", for example, when they say, "I will be with you momentarily", they mean, "I will be with you very soon." This is incorrect. "Momentarily" actually means "for a moment", or "for a short period of time". So to say "I will be with you momentarily" means "I will be with you for a brief period". This is an interesting example of misuse, insofar as it is so widespread in a particular country, that the misuse seems to have become accepted as the proper usage.

Arie Axlerad's picture
Arie Axlerad October 4, 2012 - 12:36am

I use:

i.e. - in extense

e.g. - example given

pdurrant's picture
pdurrant from Norwich, UK is reading Asimov's SF, October/November 2012 October 4, 2012 - 12:46am

i.e. id est "That is"

e.g. exempli gratia "for example"

etc. et cetera "an so on"

N.B. nota bene "note well"


It seems that the last one might not be well-known in the US, although it's common in the UK. 

N.B. Don't use etc. after e.g.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 4, 2012 - 6:56am

How about 'conservative' and 'liberal?'

Jared Johnson's picture
Jared Johnson October 4, 2012 - 2:57pm

I think most people that say "literally," and use it to convey something figuratively, know what the word means, but I think there's some impression that painting a mental picture in literal terms makes it more impressive. When you remind people that you're exaggerrating, it makes exaggerrating seem kind of pointless.

I'm not defending this tactic. I'm just wondering if this is what's going on. Or if these people are really that dumb.

drewzer15's picture
drewzer15 October 4, 2012 - 8:38pm

According to my dictionary assent and consent mean exactly the same thing: to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield. Neither word implies anything.

Melinda Meador's picture
Melinda Meador October 5, 2012 - 7:55am

Isn't it "Bernie Madoff's conviction and imprisonment were his just deserts...."

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart October 5, 2012 - 11:22am

@Melinda: Doh! Good catch. No matter how many times I read these, I always manage to miss SOMETHING.

Antiochus Epiphanes's picture
Antiochus Epiphanes October 5, 2012 - 2:00pm

Why should I add a space between "a"  and "lot"'? It makes "alot" more sense to write it this way. One less space. This is how language properly evolves and changes.

Kat Forbes's picture
Kat Forbes October 5, 2012 - 4:42pm

I would add weary / wary to this list :) 

kslingland's picture
kslingland October 5, 2012 - 5:25pm

I just want to comment on the professor response. I believe it should be: ...but if I were your professor, I would... (subjunctive mood) ;-)

gnorman's picture
gnorman October 5, 2012 - 9:36pm

Slightly off topic, though related to the desert/dessert reference: I always had trouble remembering whether to use one "s" or two. Until it finally dawned on me that the portion of your anatomy that expands also contains two esses.

Glen Cram's picture
Glen Cram October 6, 2012 - 7:23am

Incredible/incredulous has nothing to do with positive/negative. Incredulous refers to the person and incredible (though yes, it generally has a positive meaning these days) refers to the event: He was incredulous because the statement was so incredible.

Slats54's picture
Slats54 October 6, 2012 - 8:56am

It always makes me nervous (literally!) when the flight attendant announces that "we will be in the air momentarily."

jonnickell's picture
jonnickell October 6, 2012 - 7:53pm

My biggest pet peeve that shows up in the Fora all the time is then  and than. So many times they are mixed up and it drives me figuratively crazy!

Fraznaz's picture
Fraznaz October 6, 2012 - 8:45pm

I've noticed the word "reticent" being misused A LOT in recent years, even in highbrow media like NPR news. People are starting to use it as fancy word for "hesitant," when it has a much more specific meaning, i.e. "disinclined to speak or share one's thoughts; intentionally silent."

esk's picture
esk October 9, 2012 - 9:47am

"Nonplussed" is another good one. I see people using it to mean "unmoved" or "unruffled" way more often than I see it used correctly...to the point that I've started getting its meaning confused, too!

Liz Smith's picture
Liz Smith October 9, 2012 - 10:58am

The one that I have noticed, at least in the last couple of years, is "use" vs. "utilize."  I had a manager who probably said "utilize" more than any other word. . . drove me crazy!

Oliver Langmo's picture
Oliver Langmo October 9, 2012 - 12:55pm

One of my pet peeves is when someone says "conversate." Conversate is not a word and makes the user look foolish, IMO. One can converse or have a conversation but never conversate.

Jim Smith's picture
Jim Smith October 15, 2012 - 7:19am

   Says Bill Scotti of Linked in !   
If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet. - Proverbs 29:9


Jim Lewis's picture
Jim Lewis October 15, 2012 - 4:13pm

One of my favorites, "I'm so nauseous." (Yes, you are.)


Jim Lewis's picture
Jim Lewis October 15, 2012 - 4:13pm

One of my favorites, "I'm so nauseous." (Yes, you are.)


Jenny O's picture
Jenny O October 18, 2012 - 1:08pm

These are all great examples; I especially like that you included disinterested vs uninterested.  I remember learning the difference while studying medieval history.  Legal documents of the time often referred to judgements being made or control of assets being turned over to a "disinterested man".  At first I wondered why he'd be involved if he didn't care about the case! 

If you ever do a follow-up or part 2, I'd vote for fortunate vs fortuitous, and enormous vs enormity. 

I just came back to finishing up this comment after a chat with a young patron of the library I manage.  He's homeschooled and is currently studying ancient Rome, so I took the opportunity to tell him that my four years of Latin were the most useful subject I ever studied in school or university (LITERALLY!)  It may not still be spoken, but it is terribly useful in so many areas of study and of life. 

Er, harrumph.  Thanks again for a useful article ;)

Rick1971's picture
Rick1971 October 19, 2012 - 9:52am

Like I never don't use words wrong, like never!

Ray's picture
Ray November 4, 2012 - 10:33am

Dear Ms. Houston,

A wonderful, and well-needed article! Today's society is in desperate need of such edifications. In an age where we allow our computers to think for ourselves we are apt to neglect what we learned in our high school English classes. Is it my mistake, or in the Deserts vs. Deserts vs. Desserts section, is the example regarding Madoff supposed to utilize the third person plural form of "to be" (were) rather than the third person singular (was)? Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I thought this was a small error that needed to be acknowledged. Keep 'em coming!



Edward Byrne's picture
Edward Byrne November 23, 2012 - 5:09pm

Ms. Houston,

The opening words of The Dead by James Joyce: 

"Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."

I sympathize with the desire for clarity in language, but "figuratively" truly cannot be substituted in usage such as this. Literally is used to emphasize figurative language, like how one could use "compel" even if an outside force was not acting on the subject. That is, one could write:

The young boy was compelled to return the stolen articles to the shop owner.

even if no outside force was present, to emphasize the depth of his guilt. In formal language Oxford agrees with you, but shy of that it agrees with me. I also doubt that James Joyce was the first to use "literally" in such a sense, though no others come to mind.

Jules McWyrm's picture
Jules McWyrm December 19, 2012 - 9:01am

'Literally' as an intensifier has a long and illustrious history and is absolutely correct by any rational measure. It has been employed by Dryden, Pope, Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau.