Grammar Check: Are You Misusing These Words?

Let's avoid miscommunication.

Misused words are big trouble. They can make you sound uncertain. If you are friends with people who police skewed grammar like naughty children, you are bound to be corrected. But miscommunication is the worst outcome: A single misused word can mangle a sentence and express something completely different from what you meant. Here are some to pointers to help differentiate confusing words:


In a hurry to talk about rejecting someone or expressing boredom? You might be caught saying “disinterested,” which means “unbiased.”

Someone who is disinterested can detach himself from a situation so that he is able to give impartial advice or judgment. Police enforcers, judges, and news reporters need to be disinterested so they can consider all sides of the story. The word may also be used in abstract way. For example:She needs to be in a disinterested position to resolve this argument.
If you find a date or a news item lackluster, use “uninterested.” (It’s hard to be disinterested when your precious time is wasted.)


“Effective” and “efficient” are often interchanged because they are both used in situations where positive actions are called for. But there is a difference. Think of “effective” in terms of end result and “efficient” in terms of resources saved.

“Effective” is used to describe a method or thing that does what is expected or claimed as its result. Some examples:

This lotion is effective; I don’t have dry skin anymore.

The new hiring process is effective because we found great employees.

The word can also be used to describe a person who is able to meet expectations about his or her role.

Use “efficient” to describe a method, process, system, or equipment that is effective in a way that saves money or time. For instance, your web-connected smartphone is an efficient tool because it delivers information at lightning speed.


Think about moving to a new place known for long, harsh winters. You have to acclimate or get used to the cold, having lived in a sunny city like Manila. This is “adapting,” which is different from “adopting.”

To adopt is to take something or someone in your wing. In other situations, it may mean to practice something new. You are taking something from the outside to be yours. When in doubt, think of bringing a baby into your life. The right word is “adopt,” of course.


“Appraise” is a common word in real estate and businesses where price estimation is a practice. As the sentence above suggests, to appraise is to evaluate the amount, value, or merit of something. Don’t forget the “a” before the “i”—the word “apprise” means to inform someone.


If you are feeling that something is not quite right, use “amiss.” This word is often used to express intuition, but it can also function as an adverb that means “imperfectly.” For example:The play went amiss after the lead actor botched an important line.

“Remiss” means “negligent.” Use this word to describe the action of someone who did not fulfill his responsibility in a careful manner.


“Actually” and “basically” are common crutch words—those words we say out loud to buy us more time to think or explain something. Do away with replacement words if you want to sound more articulate, especially during a speech or presentation. 

Use “actually” to emphasize that something is in fact true, and not just to correct someone or express an afterthought. “Basically” shouldn’t be used as an all-around introductory word. It is used when the statement that follows is a fundamental or simple fact.




A “cliché” is a hackneyed idea or phrase. (The word is best used as a noun according to linguists.) On the other hand, “passé” is an adjective that describes something that is irrelevant or dated.

When Alanis Morisette named situations (“rain on your wedding day” and “good advice that you just didn’t take”) as “ironic,” she was actually singing about coincidence and misfortune. As noted by American Heritage Dictionary, it’s better to use “ironic” or “ironically” to underline an incongruity between situations. For example: The daughter of an excellent, multi-awarded math teacher flunked several math tests.

“Literally” is a highly debated word, even among writers and editors. Some say that what follows “literally” should be a verifiable fact, as in this sentence: I literally sent 100 email messages today. (This person should have sent 100 messages for the use of “literally” to have been correct.)

And yet there are literary writers who use “literally” to express a hyperbole or to blur the line between reality and imagination. Ben Masters pointed this out in an article where he quotes writers who have used the word in a figurative way.

So when someone says “I am literally dying of thirst!” do we correct them or let them be? Take things in context. If this person is given to comic exaggeration, then he or she might have meant to use “literally” in a figurative way.

Is it possible to come to an agreement about the use of “literally”? Our recommendation: If you want to be precise and understood in a literal way, use “literally” to underline a shocking fact or quantity. If you are a creative writer who has experimental leanings, then by all means use “literally” and assume poetic license.

Some grammar pundits claim that “irregardless” is an invalid, made-up word, while Merriam-Webster Dictionary claims that there is such a word, and even cites an example from a 1921 book. Stick to “regardless” to mean “in spite of conditions or circumstances.” It sounds less dated, and the prefix “ir” doesn’t have to confuse the person you are addressing.

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Kwyn Kenaz Aquino
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