Check Yourself: Are You Using These Words and Phrases Incorrectly?

look-it-upIt's time once again to polish up your writing! Below are a few words and phrases that people often get wrong. Misuse them among a group of friends and nobody will bat an eye. Misuse them in your professional writing and, well, your writing will simply be a shade less professional.

Per se

First, let's get the spelling clear: It's not "per say." Also, since it's a foreign-language phrase (Latin, to be specific), you might consider italicizing it. Check your style guide on that. But it's the usage that seems to be the slipperiest aspect of this phrase. Many, many people seem to think it's a synonym for "precisely" or "exactly," as in "She's not a skiing fanatic per se; she's more of a casual hobbyist." This is not correct. "Per se" means "intrinsically"; you might use it to contrast a person or thing by itself with that person or thing in a certain context or in combination with something else. For example: "Ammonia is not dangerous per se, but when mixed with bleach, it creates a deadly vapor." Or "I don't care whether it gets results; I believe torture per se is morally impermissible and should be banned."


This word sounds like it means "bored." Not so: it means to have no personal stake in something. This can be confusing because there are so many situations where both apply. Heaven knows I'm both bored by and disinterested in reality television. But they don't always go hand in hand. A good referee, for instance, is disinterested in the outcome of the basketball game. If he's bored by the basketball game, he's probably not a good referee at all.

Home in

This phrase, meaning to get closer to something (often the crux of an issue) is often incorrectly rendered as "hone in." This is an understandable mistake, as honing is the act of sharpening (or, more metaphorically, making something more intense). But the correct version of the phrase uses the same definition of "home" as homing missiles or homing pigeons.


Bemused, amused, confused. They all sound alike, but only two of them mean pretty much the same thing. No wonder this is a hard one to remember. For the record, "bemused" is basically interchangeable with "confused."


This word means funny or comical (often in an offbeat or strange way). A lot of people seem to think it means exactly the opposite: staid, muted. Exactly why is a matter of some confusion. My personal hunch is that we've seen more than a few snooty, upper-crust characters on TV remarking of something "How droll," in a tone of voice that indicates they find it anything but. Whether it's sarcasm or lack of enthusiasm, that usage has severely misled people as to the meaning of the word.

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