3 Types of Usage Errors

By Mark Nichol

The term usage in the context of language refers to the employment of the proper word or phrase to convey an idea. Writers often produce usage errors in one of several ways. They misuse a word with a meaning similar to that of a more appropriate term, they employ the wrong homophone—a word that sounds like the intended term but it spelled differently—or they mangle an idiom. Each of these sentence demonstrates one of these errors, and a discussion and a revision accompanies each.

1. The website allows one donation every day, but one person found a way to bypass the twenty-four-hour caveat.

The Latin verb caveat, which literally means “let him beware” (its root word, cavere, is also the source of caution), has been adopted into English as a noun meaning “warning,” but sometimes, as here, the term is used inappropriately; other, more apt words are available: “The website allows one donation every day, but one person found a way to bypass the twenty-four-hour restriction.” (A more egregious violation of the meaning is the bureaucrat-speak abomination “Let me caveat that”—originally attributed to loopily loquacious Alexander Haig, who was serving as secretary of state to Ronald Reagan at the time—which means, “I want to caution you about that.”)

2. The Zika virus is a mosquito-born illness that can cause neurological problems in adults and birth defects in children.

The adjective born, referring to birth, is here confused with borne, meaning “carried or spread by”: “The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne illness that can cause neurological problems in adults and birth defects in children.” Both words are derived from the Old English word boren, the past tense of beran, from which the verb bear stems (and borne is the past tense of bear), but the meanings are distinct.

3. The news agency saved its face by reporting before the official announcement that Smith had been fired.

The past tense of the idiom “save face” is here rendered with an altered form suggesting that the news agency’s physical visage was preserved rather than that it managed to maintain its figurative dignity; the sentence should read, “The news agency saved face by reporting before the official announcement that Smith had been fired.”

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5 Responses to “3 Types of Usage Errors”

  • venqax

    Isn’t bore the past tense of bear?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, Venqax, the principle parts of that verb, are bear, bore, borne, bearing.
    Its form as a noun is “burden”, and its form as an adjective is “burdensome” or “burdening”.
    Yes, “I bore the package of silver like a donkey over the Appalachians..”
    “He bore the heavy load of tin like a llama over the Andes.”
    “She bore the bale of hashish like a mule over the Apennines.”
    “They bore the body of the emperor like an elephant over the Alps.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I thought that this article was going to be about problems with the words “usage” and “utilizing”, such as writing one of these words when “use”, “using”, or “used” would do just fine!

  • Dale A. Wood

    VERY well said! “A more egregious violation of the meaning is the bureaucrat-speak abomination ‘Let me caveat that’.”
    A “bureaucrat-speak abomination”, indeed!

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Borne” is the “past participle” of “bear”, and not the “past tense”.
    Maybe this confusion results from many irregular verbs having the same form in the past tense and the past participle.
    Then there is the problem with “past”, which is a noun or an adjective, and “passed”, which is the past tense and the past participle of the verb “to pass”.
    Also, many people get confused over “past tense” and “past participle”, and then putting in the “present participle” makes things even worse.

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