In “Check Your Writing” I noted that, as writers, we only need to scrutinize two things: our facts and our words. Sometimes words can have opposite meanings and we need to use them with grave caution – or avoid them altogether. Consider:
Oversight: 1) An unintentional mistake; 2) watchful care.
Confusing usage: “His oversight of the situation was mentioned.”
Is he in trouble or about to be commended?
Cleave: 1) to split; 2) to cling.
Confusing usage: “The couple’s only solution was to cleave.”
Will they break up or steadfastly remain together?
Decimate: 1) to kill one of every ten (original meaning); 2) to kill a large part of.
Confusing usage: “The army was decimated.”
Are they now at 90% or a small fraction of what they started with?
Literally: 1) Really; actually, 2) Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.
Confusing usage: “I literally fell on the floor laughing.”
Did this actually happen or was something just really funny, sans rolling around on the ground?
These are just four words that can trip us up because of their conflicting meanings.
Worthy writers wield words wisely.