Errors in English

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is a finder of wonderful things, many of which she puts in the Particles sidebar on Making Light. She posted a link to this page, which lists common errors in English, possibly as many as 2008 of them. As I grow older and either mellower or more easily confused, I increasingly need this kind of thing. I looked for two words that have been giving me gip recently: reticent and obtuse. I’m pleased to report that the list confirms in each case my sense that these words are slipping badly in common journalistic usage:

‘Reticent’ most often means ‘reluctant to speak’. It can also mean ‘reserved’, ‘restrained’, though conservatives prefer to use it to apply only to speech. If you’re feeling nervous about doing something, you’re hesitant: ‘I’m hesitant about trying to ride a unicycle in public.’ ‘Hesitant’ is by far the more common word; so if you hesitate to choose between the two, go with ‘hesitant’.


Most people first encounter ‘obtuse’ in geometry class, where it labels an angle of more than 90 degrees. Imagine what sort of blunt arrowhead that kind of angle would make and you will understand why it also has a figurative meaning of ‘dull, stupid’. But people often mix the word up with ‘abstruse’, which means ‘difficult to understand.’ When you mean to criticise something for being needlessly complex or baffling, the word you need is not ‘obtuse’, but ‘abstruse’.

The author of the list, Paul Brians, also gets points from me for his judicious remarks about ‘they’ and ‘their’ as singular pronouns.

Have a look.

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