December 4, 2008
Weekly Language Usage Tips: aggravate or irritate & apt, likely, liable, or prone
Tip 1: aggravate or irritate
In which of the following sentences is ‘aggravate’ used correctly?
I wish you would stop that whining; it is very aggravating.
By adding your complaints to the others, you’re only aggravating the situation.
Aggravating means making a bad situation worse, as opposed to irritating or annoying. So if you chose the second sentence, you’d be correct.
It is only fair to say that this is a somewhat controversial issue, and there are some who think it is fine to use ‘aggravate’ synonymously with ‘irritate.’ This is yet another one of those situations in which you might offend the reader or listener, so use ‘aggravate’ meaning ‘irritate’ at your own risk. Personally, I find such use downright irritating.
Aside: While researching this issue, I encountered an interesting and amusing book written by Ambrose Bierce in 1909 called Write it Right: A little blacklist of literary faults. His take on aggravate versus irritate is much the same as mine except that he added this little tidbit about using aggravate to mean irritate: ”Women are singularly prone to misuse of this word.” It’s probably just as well that Mr. Bierce is no longer with us.
Tip 2: apt, likely, liable, or prone
Another set of words with similar meanings includes apt, likely, liable, and prone. While these words are similar, there are slight, subtle differences.
Apt implies a habitual or natural tendency. For example,
As record holder of the 50 yard dash, he is apt to win today’s short race.
Babies are apt to respond to adult cooing no matter how silly the adults feel.
Likely implies a probability of something happening, and it is the most general of these terms. For example,
Do you think it’s likely to rain?
It is likely that the next administration is going to have both successes and failures.
Both liable and prone suggest negative consequences or associations. For example,
Investigators who have never had a conflict of interest are liable to overlook the possibility.
People who are not paying attention (especially when they are irritated) as they walk across a parking lot may be prone to tripping and falling down, maybe even breaking a hand.
And that’s all there is to it.