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20 Words You're Probably Misusing

 INVARIABLY
If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.
COMPRISE/COMPOSE
A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.
FREE REIN
If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.
JUST DESERTS
There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.
TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS
Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”
EFFECT/AFFECT
When you want to talk about the influence of one thing on another, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Weather affects crop yields. Weather has an effect on crop yields. Basically, if you can put a the or an in front of it, use effect.
EXCEPT/ACCEPT
People rarely use accept when they mean except, but often put except where they shouldn’t. To accept something is to receive, admit, or take on. To except is to exclude or leave out—“I’ll take all the flavors except orange.” The x in except is a good clue to whether you’ve got it right.
DISCREET/DISCRETE
Discreet means hush-hush or private. Discrete means separate, divided, or distinct. In discreet, the two Es are huddled together, telling secrets. In discrete, they are separated and distinguished from each other by the intervening t.
I.E./E.G.
When you add information to a sentence with parentheses, you’re more likely to need e.g., which means “for example,” than i.e., which means “in other words” or “which is to say …” An easy way to remember them is that e.g. is eg-zample and i.e. is “in effect.”
CITE/SITE
People didn’t have as much trouble with these two before websites came along and everyone started talking about sites a lot more than they used to. A site is a location or place. Cite, on the other hand, is a verb meaning to quote or reference something else. If you’re using site as a verb, it’s probably wrong.
DISINTERESTED/UNINTERESTED
People sometimes use disinterested when they really mean uninterested. To be uninterested is to be bored or indifferent to something; this is the sense most everyday matters call for. Disinterested means impartial or having no personal stake in the matter. You want a judge or referee to be disinterested, but not necessarily uninterested.
FLOUT/FLAUNT
Are you talking about showing off? Then you don’t mean flout, you mean flaunt. To flout is to ignore the rules. You can think of flaunt as the longer showier one, with that extra letter it goes around flaunting. You can flout a law, agreement, or convention, but you can flaunt almost anything.
PHASE/FAZE
Phase is the more common word and usually the right choice, except in those situations where it means “to bother.” If something doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t faze you. Faze is almost always used after a negative, so be on alert if there is an isn’t/wasn’t/doesn’t nearby.
LOATH/LOATHE
Loath is reluctant or unwilling, while to loathe is to hate. (I loathe mosquitoes), in which case you need the e on the end.
WAVE/WAIVE
When you waive your rights, or salary, or contract terms, you surrender them.
INTENSIVE PURPOSES
Intensive is a word that means strong or extreme, but that’s not what’s called for in this phrase. The phrase you want is “for all intents and purposes.”
GAUNTLET/GAMUT
Run the gauntlet and run the gamut are both correct, but mean different things. Running the gauntlet was an old type of punishment where a person was struck and beaten while running between two rows of people. A gamut is a range or spectrum. When something runs the gamut, it covers the whole range of possibilities.
PEEK/PEAK
This pair causes the most trouble in the phrase sneak peek where the spelling from sneak bleeds over to peek, causing it to switch meaning from “a quick look” to “a high point.”
FORTUITOUS
Fortuitous means by chance or accident. Because of its similarity to fortunate, it is commonly used to refer to a lucky accident, but it need not be. Having lightening strike your house and burn it down is not a lucky event, but according to your insurance company it will be covered because it is fortuitous, or unforeseen.
REFUTE
To refute a claim or an argument doesn’t just mean to offer counterclaims and opposing arguments. That would be to respond or rebut. To refute is to prove that a claim is false.

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