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A grammatically correct word or phrase isn’t always the best communication. Some words are confusing. A phrase like “that’s me” is wrong, grammatically, but readers would think you were weird if you wrote “that is I.” If you know your audience, you’re usually safe in using their language. However, you should be aware of some words that have different meanings to different people. If the context of your writing doesn’t make the meaning clear, they are best avoided.

  • I was lying.

Was I resting comfortably or saying something untrue? Three of the most confusing verbs in our language are the forms of lie and lay. That’s two verbs, not three, right? Actually, there are three, which adds to the confusion. We have to lie (recline), to lay (put or place something), and to lie (not tell the truth). Did the man “lie on the couch” or “lay on the couch”? People often use laid, meaning recline, when the word actually means put. The safest approach is to choose a different verb.

  • When I read the book…

This phrase is confusing because we don’t know whether read is pronounced like “reed” or “red.” The verb could be either present or past tense, so readers have to wait until later in the sentence to find out which one the writer intended. That’s a disconcerting inconvenience you want to avoid.

  • Are you eager or anxious?

Many professionals think anxious means “eager anticipation,” but it’s more correctly defined as “fearful apprehension” because its root meaning comes from anxiety. Avoid the use of anxious. Use eager, apprehensive, or some other word that suits your meaning.

  • Does inflammable mean I can light a match?

At one time, the signs on gasoline trucks said Inflammable, but some people thought the word meant “not combustible.” Nobody was rushing to the dictionary to learn that the correct meaning is “highly flammable,” so the signs were changed to Flammable, avoiding the confusion.

  • Is a moot point debatable?

The word could mean that, or it might mean “irrelevant.” If the context doesn’t make the meaning clear, find a better word.

  • What are contranyms?

This is a fancy name for words that are spelled and sound the same, but they have opposite meanings in different situations. If John dusted the surface, did he “remove the fine particles” or “add fine particles”? Either meaning could be true, so be careful. For a list of contranyms, click here.