Many people who’ve had to proof read documents start to develop a kind of compulsive “tutting” at misused words. Here’s my top 5 words that are misused by either professional writers or public speakers who, let’s be honest, should really know better. I’m not being paid for this, so I don’t feel so bad if there are mistakes!

1. “Refute” means to “disprove with evidence” and yet it’s commonly used, even by professional writers, to mean “rebut” which carries a similar meaning but isn’t quite so strong, as it can also mean “argue against.” The example here (“Simon Cowell refutes ‘scandalous’ claims he helped billionaire hide assets from wife he was divorcing”) is from a recent Daily Mail article. For those outside the UK, the Daily Mail is a newspaper which regularly rages against falling educational standards. A special mention to Sarah Palin who invented a new word “refudiate”; the usage suggests she meant repudiate.

2. Nowadays, it’s almost universally assumed that “instant” actually means “quickly” or “without intervention.” Obviously, it doesn’t. It actually refers to a precise moment in time. Google Instant is a good example of this word being abused.

3. “Enormity” means “extreme evil”, but it’s often used to mean “enormousness”. US President, George HW Bush missed this one when he said after being elected that he “Couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation.” A perfect example of irony (which, in the context I have just used it, is correct).

4. Less is used when comparing quantities that can’t be counted; for example, “I’d like less milk.” If you’re comparing quantities (like bagels, for example) then “fewer” should be used. But you don’t win many competitions with a tie break if you point out that “25 words or less” should actually be “25 words or fewer.” The antonyms “more than” and “greater than” get similarly misused. Programmers will know the comparison operators are referred to as “greater than and less than”; it should really be “greater than and fewer than”.

5. Chronic is originally a medical term meaning “long term”; it has the same root as “chronometer”. Someone suffering from chronic pain has long term pain. It’s often used to mean “very bad” – in fact “acute” should be used instead. Despite that, it’s easy to find recent examples: “O’Brien: INM in ‘chronic’ state”.