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.

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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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sarta22's picture
sarta22 January 31, 2013 - 5:51pm

There has been a recent trend of the word 'literally' being used obnoxiously.  The word being used with an intended meaning of 'virtually' or 'figuratively', however, is not a new trend.  This use, though not etymologically sound, has been employed by many authors of the English language for centuries.  Charles Dicken, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Wiliam Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway have all employed this hyperbolic use of 'literally'.  Jesse Shiedlower, the OED's Editor at Large, spoke briefly about the word and this alternative use in 2005 on NPR.  

Celeste Peters Byrd's picture
Celeste Peters Byrd March 13, 2013 - 9:27am

I am not sure if this is misused elsewhere but here in south Texas there is a big problem with people using pacific to mean specific. I tell them that pacific is an ocean and specific is special. I only hope I'm correct.


hobofoto's picture
hobofoto March 21, 2013 - 2:59pm

Thank you! I hope that you will (if you've not already) hit your readers upside the haid with "hopefully" and, I beg you, with the phrase "begs the question"! 

Niamh Kinsella's picture
Niamh Kinsella June 7, 2013 - 6:11am

I accrued a number of haterz following a similar post I wrote here: http://toplinecomms.com/blog/2013/05/14-words-youve-been-using-incorrectly-this-whole-time

John Nelson's picture
John Nelson October 7, 2013 - 8:43pm

My comment might be a little off-topic, but I think that it's in the spirit of this article. I find myself annoyed by the wide-spread use of the term "popular culture" in recent years. Michigan State University publishes The Journal Of Popular Culture to address the influence of popular art forms such as comics, advertising, popular books, television and movies, etc., art not often deemed worthy to hang in museums, or to have won literary prizes or been named “classics.” Meanwhile, it seems that anyone in the media who mentions the latest crappy episode of The New Girl or Modern Family uses the term "pop culture." Ugh, enough already.

ekmahoney's picture
ekmahoney from New England is reading lots of short stories October 13, 2013 - 2:23am

Literally is used because if you say "I figuratively am going to strangle you if you don't stop taking my stapler" it just doesn't put the fear of god into people the way saying you are literally going to do something. So yes we "use it wrong" in the sense that it means not exaggerated and I am but really I'm using it correctly because the message I'm trying to get across is "I am not exaggerating when I say that I am going to strangle you if you don't stop taking my stapler."


Just saying...

Kane MC's picture
Kane MC December 7, 2014 - 10:49am

I still like the word atleast even though it isn't an accepted word. I used to use alot but not anymore. Maybe one day I'll give up on trying to make atleast a word even though I think it should be. Is that childish? Idk. 

sarinaroseauthor's picture
sarinaroseauthor February 11, 2015 - 8:22pm

I love this article and the comments. The world of word sleuths is fasincating. So many fabulous interesting people  iwth incredible knowledge. I am a bit envious.


Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart February 20, 2015 - 2:41pm

Sarina, welcome. Word nerds are a whily bunch Who knew such a large group of people could get so worked up over grammar!?!

Gina Marie Taylor's picture
Gina Marie Taylor January 11, 2016 - 5:04am

This makes me think of the arguement I had with my camp counselor as a teenager about how to pronounce the word pronunciation. He kept saying it was "Pronounciation". **rips hair out**

allenpitts's picture
allenpitts November 16, 2018 - 10:27am

Hello Lit Reactor,

The word that is seen misused so many times that it drives me to distraction and makes me want to scream is 'below'. It is especially tortured in emails. For instance: 'The below information on rocket surgery....'

Below is not an adjective!

Below is an adverb and in outlying cases a preposition but it is never ever an adjective.
It does not modify a noun. It modifies a verb or other adverb.

Sorry. I feel better now.

Allen Pitts, Dallas Texas