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5 Words and Phrases You’re (Probably) Using Incorrectly

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5 Words and Phrases You’re (Probably) Using Incorrectly

Among the educated public, certain words and phrases have been set loose from their original meanings and made to take on varied and shifting meanings.  You have probably heard these words used by friends and colleagues when they’re presenting information or trying to tell you something important that’s happened in their life. You’ve probably used the same words yourself in ways similar to the way others have. However, the seeming lack of fixed meaning for them may have begun to trouble you. Indeed, it may be the case that your boss or some other person in a position to advance or hinder your career is a stickler for good diction and will at a crucial moment hold your lack of good English usage against you.

You should never use a word or phrase unless you know exactly what it means. That’s always a good rule of thumb. Here I give 5 common misusages, which should give you a good place to start in using English correctly:

1. Ambivalent

To be ambivalent is to be in a state of simultaneous attraction and repulsion, not indecision. The ambivalent lover, for example, is not one torn between two different women, but one who teeters between love and hatred of the same woman. What most people mean when they say they’re ambivalent about a person or a situation is that they’re confused or unsure of their feelings.

2. Dilemma

The word means two horns. A dilemma is more than being in a difficult or perplexing situation. It refers to an inescapable choice—of having to decide between two, and only two, choices that are equally bad. You should be suspicious of anyone who uses the word because seldom during the course of ordinary, everyday life will a person be put in such a position.

3. Entail

An entailment is a formally necessary relation between two or more things. A=B=C, therefore A entails C. The word has been expanded recently to describe the probable consequence of a given action. However, you’re better off using the word ‘include’ rather than entail. For example, “Investing in this project will include considerable risk.”

4. That begs the question

When I hear people—especially people in politics and on television—misuse this phrase, I want to scream. Thinking of a question that someone’s statement or action has suggested does not entitle one to preface said question with “That begs the question…” Begging the question means asserting without argument the proposition to be proved. The phrase is shorthand for a logical fallacy that involves circular reasoning. If a question has occurred to you because of what someone else has said, just ask the question; don’t say “That begs the question…”

5. Cannot prove a negative

The underlying meaning of this false maxim is reasonable enough: it is impossible or damn hard to prove a universal negative in matters of fact. But so what? It is just as hard to prove a universal positive. Black swans and red squirrels have turned up enough times to confound the positive generalizers. Rather than throw out the cant phrase “I cannot prove a negative” you should just say “Proving empirical generalities tends to be very difficult.”

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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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