Inconceivable! And Other Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

If you understood the reference made in the title of this post (hint: if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, stop reading right now and go watch it), then you probably know what I’ll be discussing in this post.

In a living language like English, words sometimes change their meaning over time. For example, we use the word “prosaic” to mean dull or unimaginative; but originally, it simply meant “prose,” as in literature that wasn’t poetry.

So yes, words change, and even the most contentious literary lover might misuse a word or will encounter a new word they didn’t know before. But some words in recent years seem to have become problematic for many people. Here are a few of my pet peeves:

Literally. This means “exactly, without inaccuracy.” Nowadays, though, most people use it as nothing more than a modifier to add emphasis to a statement, like beginning a sentence of moderate importance with the word “dude.” There’s nothing wrong with “literally” moving into slang usage in this way, but where I take issue is when people forget what it actually means. Saying “Dude, my head literally exploded” in everyday conversation is one thing; but if you’re trying to sound professional in either your speaking or the written word, just remember that you wouldn’t still be here if your head had literally (i.e. actually, truly) exploded.

Alright. I’ve blogged about this word before. There’s not much to say here, because “alright” isn’t a word at all. What you’re trying to say is “all right.”

Welp or whelp. First of all, welp is not a real word. I see welp or whelp used in slang and conversation as an alternate way of saying “well” at the beginning of a sentence. For example, a Facebook update might say “Welp, there goes my great idea for my school project. :-(” Again, I’m fine with slang usage for words, but please don’t forget what the actual definition is. While “welp” doesn’t mean anything, a “whelp” is the pup or cub of a dog, a bear, or other animal, or can be used to as a somewhat derogatory term for an obnoxious child.

I’m sure there are other words that could be added to this list of “words that don’t mean what you think they mean.” These three are a good start, I think, mostly because I see them used (or misused) so frequently. What misused words would you add to the list?

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The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Frequently Misspelled Words

This subject could be novel-length—or at least long enough for several blog posts—but I’m going to cover just a select few words that I often see misspelled or misused. I encounter these a lot, whether it be the quick Facebook comment where spelling doesn’t matter as much, or the story or blog post by a professional where correct usage does matter.

Alright: This is not actually a word at all. The correct spelling is all right—two words. It is used in place of okay, such as “All right, Joe, we’ll do it your way,” or “What happened to you? Are you all right?”

It’s not related to the word already, which seems to be the popular belief, judging by the common usage of alright. Already and all ready have two different meanings: “Is it time to go already? Wow, time went fast,” versus “Are you all ready to go?”

But all right stands alone, as a two-word phrase.

Then/Than: Both of these are perfectly legitimate words, but I see them mixed up all the time.

Then is most commonly an adverb, and describes time or an order of events. It’s also used in a cause and effect scenario. “I took a shower, and then went to bed,” or “If you drop that bowl, then it will shatter.”

Than is primarily a conjunction, and is used as a comparison word. “I like turkey more than chicken” or “She is older than her brother.”

The most common misuse I see of “than” is it being used in the cause and effect-type of sentence, like “If Stan wants to talk to me, than he will call me.”

And similarly, I see “then” being misused as a comparison word, such as “I like apples more then oranges.”

If you’re not sure how to keep the words straight, then take a moment to analyze the sentence. If the sentence involves time in any way, it’s probably going to use “then.” If it’s a comparison of any sort, “than” is usually a safe bet.

Ya’ll: This is not a word either. The correct spelling is y’all.

First, a quick definition for anyone who doesn’t live in the American south—y’all means “you guys,” as in more than one person. It’s a contraction of “you all.”

The apostrophe indicates that there is a letter taken out—same as in words like don’t (do not) or it’s (it is). In this case, it’s the –ou taken out of you. Spelled ya’ll, it makes no sense.

And also remember, it’s a plural word. Y’all should not be used if one person is talking to one other person, unless the speaker is talking about a group of more than one. If you’re writing a story with a character from the American south, make sure that you don’t use this word if the character is having a one-on-one conversation with someone.

Correct: “Hey, Sammy, are you coming over tonight?” (Sammy alone has been invited)

or,

“Hey, Sammy, are y’all coming over tonight?” (correct only if it has been revealed earlier that Sammy, his wife, and his son have all been invited. In this case, the context indicates that Sammy is representing his whole family)

Incorrect: (romantic moment between guy and gal)—“So, Clara, do y’all love me?” (romantic moment turns disturbing here. Does Clara have someone else living inside her?)

I hope this helps to clear up some confusion about some of those troublesome words!