10 most difficult words in English

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Vocab Quiz

Literally

If you know a language purist, watch out. Misuse of this word has been known to raise people’s blood pressure. ‘Literally’ means, “in a literal sense”, or “what I’m saying is not imagined, but truly happened as I’m saying it.” Therefore, popular uses like “I literally died laughing,” or “He was so embarrassed his cheeks literally burned up,” are not correct. 

Whom

Who knew such a little word could be so confusing! In English, we use ‘who’ to refer to a sentence’s subject and ‘whom’ to its object. But how can you tell which one you need? Try answering your own question with ‘him’ or ‘he’. If ‘him’ could be the answer, ‘whom’ is your word. (Handy trick: both words end in m.)

Colonel

This is a pronunciation bungle for many students! When you look at this word (meaning a rank of officer in the army), you might think it’s pronounced co-lo-nel. And who could blame you? It’s not so simple, however, as it’s pronounced kernel (like a corn kernel!). But how did ‘colonel’ end up being spelled like that?

Ironic

Here is a word that has confused almost all English speakers – native or otherwise. (No, really – we could write a whole course on using irony correctly!)  While irony is often understood to mean a coincidence or strange turn of events, that in itself doesn’t cover its full meaning. (In fact, as Alanis Morissette’s famous song, Ironic – with around 10 poor examples of irony – shows us, coincidences and unfortunate events aren’t enough.)

Irregardless (instead of regardless)

You might have heard people use ‘irregardless’ when they mean to say ‘regardless’. ‘Regardless’ means “without regard” or “despite something” (“He maxed out his credit card regardless of the consequences,”) and is perfectly acceptable.

Enormity

This one’s a biggie! It seems simple enough. ‘Enormity’ is so close to ‘enormous’ that they must be synonyms. Right? Wrong! ‘Enormity’ means ‘extreme evil’ of the toe-curling, medieval history or ruthless dictator kind. Therefore, the exceptionally commonly used expression “the enormity of the situation…” is incorrect. (Unless, in fact, you’re actually talking about an act of evil. Which we hope you aren’t!)

Disinterested

Imagine you’re in court. What kind of judge would you like on your case? A disinterested or uninterested judge? I hope you chose the former! While an uninterested judge would be yawning and flicking through their phone, a disinterested judge would be far more likely to hear all sides of your case and rule objectively. 

Nonplussed

Feeling a bit nonplussed after our brief trip through linguistic history? It’s certainly possible. We’ve arrived at our sixth difficult word, another where a sneaky prefix is the culprit. Because the prefix -non means “not”, some people misuse ‘nonplussed’ as ‘unfazed’ or ‘uninterested’. In reality, ‘nonplussed’ means “bewildered” or “at a loss of what to think”. 

Unabashed

What’s that prefix doing on an unfamiliar word like “abash”? Well, while “abash” does exist (it means to embarrass or perplex), it hasn’t been widely used for centuries. The negative version, unabashed, on the other hand, is used today and means “not embarrassed”. 

Lieutenant

Another military term to confuse us! This one is an example of different pronunciations “across the pond” or between the US and UK. In British English, the word is pronounced leftenant, whereas in the United States, you’ll hear loo-tenant

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