List of English words with disputed usage

From Academic Kids

Some English words are often used in ways that are contentious among writers on usage and other prescriptivists. The contentious usages are especially common in spoken English. While in some circles, the usages below may make the speaker sound uneducated or illiterate, in other circles the more standard or more traditional usage may make the speaker sound stilted or pretentious. Hence, the following usages and their alternatives are useful as class distinctions.

Note: AHD4 = American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition.

  • Aggravate - some prescriptivists have argued that this word should not be used in the sense of "to annoy" or "to oppress", but only to mean "to make worse". However, this proscription against "to annoy" is not rooted in history: the "annoy" usage occurs in English as far back as the 17th century. Furthermore, in Latin, from which the word was borrowed, both meanings were used.
    • Disputed usage: It's the endless wait for luggage that aggravates me the most about air travel.
    • Undisputed usage: Being hit on the head by a falling brick aggravated my already painful headache.
  • Ain't - though this word is widely used, it is considered non-standard by some prescriptivists. See ain't.
  • Alibi - some prescriptivists argue this cannot be used in the non-legal sense of "an explanation or excuse to avoid blame or justify action." Also, use of the word alibi as a verb is unacceptable to a large majority of AHD4's Usage Panel.
  • Also - some prescriptivists contend this word should not be used to begin a sentence. AHD4 says "63 percent of the Usage Panel found acceptable the example The warranty covers all power-train components. Also, participating dealers back their work with a free lifetime service guarantee."
  • Alternative - some prescriptivists argue that alternative should be used only when the number of choices involved is exactly two.
  • A.m./p.m. - these are Latin abbreviations for ante merediem ("before noon") and post merediem ("after noon"), adverbial phrases. Some prescriptivists argue that they therefore should not be used in English as nouns meaning "morning" and "afternoon", but this ignores ordinary nominalization features of English.
  • Amount - some prescriptivists argue amount should not be substituted for number. They recommend the use of number if the thing referred to is countable and amount only if it is uncountable. (see less)
    • Disputed usage: I was amazed by the amount of people who visited my website.
    • Undisputed usage: The number of people in the lift must not exceed 10.
    • Undisputed usage: I was unimpressed by the amount of water consumed by the elephant.
  • And - some prescriptivists argue that sentences should not begin with the word "and" on the argument that as a conjunction it should only join clauses within a sentence. On the other hand, there is no reason why conjunctions cannot join different sentences, and some insist on using it that way, even though they are aware of the fact that others are peeved by such usage. Many Biblical verses begin with "and", as does William Blake's poem And did those feet in ancient time (aka Jerusalem). Fowler's Modern English Usage defends this use of "and".
  • Anxious - some prescriptivists argue that this word should only be used in the sense of "worried" or "worrisome" (compare "anxiety"), but most dictionaries include a definition meaning "eager".
  • But - some prescriptivists argue that if and should not be used to begin sentences, then neither should but. These words are both conjunctions, so they believe that they should be used only to link clauses within a sentence. But many people disagree and begin sentences with the word anyway.
  • Can and May - some prescriptivists argue that can refers to possibility and may refers to permissions, and insist on maintaining this distinction, although usage of can to refer to permission is pervasive in spoken and very frequent in written English. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes: "Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in senses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts."
  • Deprecate - the original meaning in English is "deplore" or "express disapproval of" (the Latin from which the word derives means "pray to avert evil", suggesting that some event would be a calamity). The word is now also used to mean "play down", "belittle" or "devalue", a shift that some prescriptivists disapprove of, as it suggests the word is being confused with the similar word depreciate. Its use with the approximate meaning to declare obsolete in computer jargon is also sometimes condemned.
  • Enormity - frequently used as a synonym for "enormousness", but traditionally means "extreme wickedness".
    • Disputed usage: The enormity of the elephant astounded me.
    • Traditional usage: The enormity of Stalin's purges astounds me.
  • Fortuitously - is used by some interchangeably with fortunately, whereas, strictly speaking, fortuitousness is merely a reference to an occurrence depending on chance. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that use of the word in sense of "fortunate" has been in standard use for at least 70 years and notes that the sense of "coming or happening by a lucky chance" is virtually unnoticed by usage critics.
  • Gender - is often used as a euphemism for sex.
    • Gender traditionally refers to grammatical gender, a feature in the grammar of a number of different languages. Some prescriptivists argue that its use as a euphemism for sex is to be avoided as a genteelism.
    • Others note that some writers use sex and gender in different but related senses, using sex to refer to biological characteristics and gender to refer to social roles and expectations based on sex. Those who use gender in this fashion frequently take a controversially expansive view of the effects of social expectations on sex roles, and diminish the role of biology to purely physical characteristics. Those who use gender as a euphemism for sex may confuse readers who draw this distinction, or mislead readers by giving the impression that the writer has assumed or endorsed these beliefs. See gender identity, gender role
  • Hoi polloi - There are two main usage issues regarding hoi polloi:
    • This Greek phrase meaning "the common people" has occasionally been used to mean "the aristocracy", perhaps because it sounds like hoity-toity or it looks somewhat like high and mighty. However, this definition is not accepted by any major dictionary, and indeed AHD4 says "Hoi polloi is sometimes incorrectly used to mean 'the elite'".
    • The other question surrounding hoi polloi is whether or not it is appropriate to use the article the preceding the phrase. The question arises because hoi is the Greek word for "the" in the phrase and classical purists complain that adding the makes the phrase a redundant "the the common people". Foreign phrases borrowed into English are often reanalyzed as single grammatical units, requiring an English article in appropriate contexts. AHD4 says "The Arabic element al- means "the", and appears in English nouns such as alcohol and alchemy. Thus, since no one would consider a phrase such as the alcohol to be redundant, criticizing the hoi polloi on similar grounds seems pedantic."
  • Hopefully - some prescriptivists argue this word should not be used as an expression of confidence in an outcome, although other words such as interestingly, frankly, and unfortunately are unremarkably used in a similar way. See also the discussion of hopefully as a dangling modifier. Other commentators have noted that the supposed "correct" usage of hopefully to describe an action is awkward and should be avoided, as in the second example.
    • Disputed usage: Hopefully I'll get that scholarship!
    • Disputed usage: He was hopefully anticipating the upcoming film.
  • Less - some prescriptivists argue that less should not be substituted for fewer. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes "The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved <less than 100 miles> <an investment of less than $2000> <in 25 words or less> and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time <in less (or fewer) than four hours>"
    • Disputed usage: This lane 12 items or less.
    • Undisputed usage: We had fewer players on the team this season.
    • Undisputed usage: There is less water in the tank now.
  • Like and as. The preposition like is often misused as a conjunction when only as would be appropriate.
    • Undisputed usage. He is an American as am I.
    • Undisputed usage. He is an American like me.
    • Undisputed usage. It looks as if this play will be a flop.
    • Undisputed usage. This play looks like a flop.
    • Disputed usage. He is an American like I am.
    • Disputed usage. It looks like this play will be a flop.
  • Literally - some prescriptivists argue literally should not be used as a mere emphatic, unless the thing to which it refers is actually true. It is used to disambiguate a possible metaphorical interpretation of a phrase. The Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn't condemn the second use which means "in effect" or "virtually", but says "the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary."
    • Disputed usage: The party literally went with a bang. (No it didn't, unless there was an actual explosion).
    • Undisputed usage: He literally painted the town red; he was the council painter and decorator.


  • Loan The use of loan as a verb meaning "to give out a loan" is disputed, with lend being preferred for the verb form.
    • Undisputed usage. I lent him some money.
    • Undisputed usage. Fill out the paperwork for a loan.
    • Disputed usage. I loaned him some money.
  • Momentarily - traditionally means "for a moment", but is often used disputedly to mean "in a moment". It is often used by those who want to inflate their speech. Most dictionaries, including M-W and AHD, include a definition meaning "in a moment", although the AHD4 has a usage note indicating that 59% of their usage panel disapproves of this usage.
    • Disputed usage: Your feature presentation will begin momentarily. (use "soon" instead)
    • Disputed usage: I will call you momentarily, after I utilize the sanitary facilities.
    • Undisputed usage: The flash from the atom bomb momentarily lit up the night sky.
  • Not - some prescriptivists argue not shouldn't conclude a sentence. Others note that such usage is old enough and has been utilized by many of the best writers in the English language.
    • Disputed usage: I would think not.
  • Presently - traditionally means "after a short period of time", and this is the usage most frequent in British English. In American English, it most commonly means "currently" or "at the present time."
    • Disputed usage: I am presently reading Wikipedia.
    • Undisputed usage: I will be finished with that activity presently.
  • Refute - the traditional meaning is "disprove" or "dispel with reasoned arguments". It is now often used a mere synonym for "deny".
  • Relatively- Literally meaning "compared to," some now use the word to mean "moderately" or "somewhat."
    • Disputed usage: That man was relatively annoying.
    • Undisputed usage: Though relatively harmless when compared to dimethylmercury, mercury (II) oxide is still quite toxic.
  • Thusly - thusly was originally coined by educated writers to make fun of uneducated persons trying to sound genteel. Thusly, however, diffused into popular usage. Some people accept it as an adverb in its own right, while others believe thus should be used in all cases.
  • Unique some prescriptivists argue that unique only means "sole" or "unequaled", but most dictionaries give a third meaning: "unusual", which can be qualified by very or somewhat, as in "The theme of the party was somewhat unique"; see comparison.
  • Who - some prescriptivists argue that "who" should be used only as a subject pronoun, the corresponding object pronoun being "whom". Strictly speaking, using who instead of whom is substituting a subjective pronoun for an objective pronoun and hence is the same as using she instead of her (e.g., I talked to she today.). Most people never use whom in spoken English and instead use who for all cases. Some, however, still do use whom in their everyday speech and might recognize the use of who in its place as substandard.
    • Undisputed usage: Who is talking to you?
    • Disputed usage: Who are you talking to?
    • Undisputed usage: To whom are you talking?
    • Disputed usage: To who are you talking?

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