Words You’re Using Wrong
Alumni: This is not a singular noun. It wasn’t singular in Latin, and it’s not so now. If you say, “I’m an alumni of Awesome University,” it’s the equivalent of saying, “I’m a men.” If you’re talking about a group of all male, or both male and female, graduates, say “alumni.” If all female, it’s “alumnae.” Otherwise, a male graduate is an alumnus and a female graduate is an alumna. And remember, no matter what word you use, your university really wants all alumni to give give give.
Devious: Often used to mean “evil” or “manipulative,” this word actually means using underhanded tactics to achieve one’s goals. So while an evil or manipulative person might be devious as well, the word does not mean “evil” or “manipulative.” And we all know better than to make moral judgments based on behavior, right?
Hypocritical: Many people confuse this with discrimination or differential treatment. It actually means taking or prohibiting action for others that one would or wouldn’t do themselves, or criticizing others for something that the speaker himself does. A case in point: If an employee is fired from their job after making racist comments on social media, it’s not hypocritical of the manager to fire them but not another employee who didn’t make such comments. It would only be hypocritical if the manager made such comments and pleaded their higher-ups to let them keep their job, but encouraged those higher-ups to fire someone else who made similar comments.
Homage: Many people, including me for many years, often mispronounce this word. It’s “AH-mij,” sometimes with a soft “h” at the beginning, not “(h)o-MAHJ.” It’s also frequently used to refer to a parody, reference, or in-joke (I’m also guilty of this), especially in film, but it actually means a public act of respect. So when someone puts lens flares, silhouettes, or “Must go faster” in their movie, they may say they’re paying homage to Spielberg, but more likely they’re just stealing. Hey, nothing new under the sun.
Perspective and Prospective: Many people use this to mean “prospective,” or “expected”/“possible.” “Perspective” refers to a view or vantage point. Examples in action: “A prospective art student looked at the course offerings for classes on perspective.” “From my perspective, I think a prospective buyer would be interested to know the trade-in value.”
Would of: This is not even a thing. It’s “would’ve,” short for “would have.” Stop writing “would of.” You’re breaking my heart.
Words people say you’re using wrong but you’re actually using correctly — kinda
Literally: Language prescriptivists HATE when people use this word outside its, ahem, literal definition. “Oh, you’re literally dying?! I think you mean ‘figuratively’!!!” However, just as words like “awesome” and “terrific” became positive adjectives that communicate the speaker’s level of emotion, so “literally” has become that go-to adverb. As long as you can tell the difference between when someone says they’re literally going to kill you and they’re literally going to kill you, I think we’re all good.
Nauseous: Apparently I was calling myself gross every time I had an upset stomach, because “nauseous” means causing nausea, not experiencing it. According to many lists like this, the correct word if you’ve got tummy troubles is “nauseated.” If you get tummy troubles from hearing Trump speak, it’s because he’s nauseous, not you.
However, “nauseous” has been so often used to mean “feeling sick” that the New Oxford American Dictionary lists both definitions. Therefore, if you feel like throwing up while Trump’s talking, you’re both nauseous.
Singular “they”: The AP has chimed in and approved the singular “they.” This not only avoids awkward “he”/”she” constructions, but also accommodates folks who might fall elsewhere on the gender spectrum. And let’s face it, it’s just easier to say “they” or “them,” whether you’re speaking hypothetically or about how “they” are listening…tinfoil hat, anyone?
Every month, I’ll add new words to this post, so bookmark it!
Rachel Wayne is a professional writer and cultural anthropologist.