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Words at Play

We Made You a Slideshow of Usage Limericks

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Some writers are often accused
Of conflating amused and bemused
The first makes you smile
(it’s close to beguile)
While the latter usually means you’re confused

The initial meaning of bemuse (and the one that is strongly preferred by many usage guides) is “to make confused.” However, this word is found used by some writers in other ways, such as “to occupy the attention of,” and “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.” This latter sense is likely influenced by the word’s similarity to amuse. And in case you weren’t bemused enough already, amuse previously was commonly used in the senses of “bewilder,” “bemuse,” and “absorb.” The most common senses of amuse today are “to entertain or occupy in a light, playful, or pleasant manner” and “to appeal to the sense of humor of.”

If you're a stickler for grammar, prepare
to be irked by the singular their
Tho it seems a mistake
The position we take
Is if the word is in use we don’t care

Some people still prefer to use his when referring to a person of unspecified or unknown gender (“Every worker does his best”). However, many have moved on to his or her—a more inclusive, yet awkward phrase ("Every worker does his or her best"). Singular their solves this awkwardness ("Every worker does their best").

There is a long tradition in English of using plural pronouns (such as they, their, or them) for a singular character, rather than ascribing gender in a seemingly indeterminate fashion. The habit of always using he, him, or his began to be strongly advocated for after 18th century grammarians decided that indefinite pronouns should be singular; in recent years, the acceptance of gender-neutral third person pronouns such as their is growing.


Despite a reputation for stick-to-itiveness, Thomas More couldn't seem to settle on a single meaning for 'infer'.

When choosing implied or inferred
A mistake will often be heard
For making suggestions
Or indirect mentions
Imply is the one that’s preferred

Imply has several meanings, but since most of the current ones are concerned with similar themes (indirectness, suggestion, and potential), it tends to be used correctly. Infer, however, is often used in a manner that is thought of as incorrect. The most commonly accepted meaning of infer is “to form (an opinion) from evidence: to reach (a conclusion) based on known facts.” However, infer has also been used to mean “to suggest or hint.” The writer who is thought to have first used infer in its accepted sense is Thomas More, who employed it thusly in 1528. By a striking coincidence, the name of the writer who first used infer in the sense that is now considered incorrect is also Thomas More, as the same writer came up with the second sense of infer in 1533.

Based on the historical evidence, we cannot go so far as to say that this second use of infer is incorrect. We can, however, tell you that it is frowned upon by many.

Despite all the warnings you’ve heard
Irregardless is really a word
This linguistic bacteria
Meets our criteria
Even though you might think it absurd

The criteria mentioned above that irregardless meets are as follows: it is widely used with a specific meaning intended (“regardless”), it has had prolonged use (since at least 1795), and there is a sizable body of written evidence attesting to its use. We provide a usage label in the entry for irregardless, indicating that it is nonstandard, but we cannot make it not be a word, no matter how often you might ask us to.

A teacher of some reputation
Told students his greatest frustration
“It causes me pique
When you say most unique
Such words should have no gradation

Unique is thought of by some people as belonging to a class of words known as absolute adjectives, which are adjectives that allow no degree of variation. Other words commonly thought of as absolute include perfect and supreme. One of the definitions we provide for unique is “very special or unusual,” due to the word having been used in this sense by many people, for many years.

Of the subject of semantic upheaval
Some critics would make it illegal
They think that enormity
Is a verbal deformity
When its meaning is aught but “great evil”

Enormity is frequently used to denote large size. People who use it in this fashion are also frequently criticized for doing so. Yet although the size-related meaning of enormity is frowned upon by many, it has been so used in English for almost 400 years now, and seems unlikely to go away.

Even though you might emphasize
That words shouldn’t end with an –ize
your strict discontent
will fail to prevent
such jargon as incentivize

We have been adding the suffix -ize to our verbs since the 16th century, and some people still haven’t come to terms with it. Many people view -ize words as coming from the realm of business jargon, and in the case of incentivize and finalize they are at least partially correct. However, we seem to have no trouble with using words such as memorize, galvanize, and baptize.

Up Next

'Dumbledore', 'Hippogriff', and 11 More Real Words from Harry Potter

There’s a backwoodsy tinge, nay a taint
With dialectical words such as ain’t
But that word’s often found
Used by writers renowned
At least on occasions when they wish to sound quaint

When Merriam-Webster published the third edition of its Unabridged Dictionary in 1961 a number of critics were horrified to find that ain’t was defined in its pages. These critics were either unmoved by, or failed to read, the note accompanying ain’t, which read “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.”

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