Specifically, I'm looking for the term for when a person uses a word correctly, but intends a different meaning.

For example:

I empathize with you.

When the person really means:

I sympathize with you.

Both sentences are grammatically correct. They both have meaning, and as sentences they are both "correct"...they're just incorrect in this case.
This isn't a case of a malapropism where a similar sounding word is inserted with ludicrous results, nor is it a parapraxis, eggcorn, or mondegreen (as I understand them). It's simply a case where a person either misunderstood the difference between the two and thus chose the wrong word or the person did understand but believed (in this case) they empathized when in fact they only sympathized.

I'd like to say something like "You made a grammatical mistake/error" - except in this case it isn't grammar...

  • This may have been already answered on this site.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 12:29
  • It depends. Is it an accident? If so, then you would call it a misinterpretation first, and a misuse later.
    – dockeryZ
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 1:23

9 Answers 9


It's probably catachresis (although I'm not sure the stipulation that the resulting statement is acceptable English [though with an unintended meaning] holds):

n. 1. The misapplication of a word or phrase, as the use of blatant to mean "flagrant." [AHDEL]


Avoiding the implications of ludicrousness the term that applies is miswording.

miswording n. and adj. misword v. wrong wording or expression; an instance of this (OED).

  • 1
    This is the best I think, as some other reasonable answers here are more specific. There is the slangy thinko modelled over typo, but it's very much a slang rather than standard usage.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 11:39

When someone uses an incorrect word in place of a similar sounding word, it's called a malapropism.

To use your example, if I were to say, I empathize with you, when I mean to say that I sympathize with you, that would be a malapropism.

  • 2
    I disagree. For it to be a malapropism, it would have to have a very different meaning with amusing/ludicrous results. From the definition you yourself linked: "an amusing error that occurs when a person mistakenly uses a word that sounds like another word but that has a very different meaning"
    – Doc
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:30
  • That's exactly what I think. I don't see the point of making all these fine distinctions between eggplants, parapleximuses and moneygrowns. (None of them are in the ODE anyway!) At the end of the day 'the person used the wrong word'. It is all down to dear old Mrs Maladroit as far as I'm concerned.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:31
  • @Doc We're interpreting this differently then: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially : the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context (emphasis added). For the record, I knew the answer before I looked it up, but I did bother to read the source contrary to your suggestion. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:34
  • To me, confusing sympathetic/empathetic/apathetic would be ludicrously wrong. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:39
  • There are two definitions – a stricter one and a looser one – given at the reference John links to. Sadly, they're imcompatible. Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 19:46

Empathize and sympathize are paronyms. More commonly, and less fancily, referred to simply as confusables.

Other examples include affect/effect, farther/further, alternately/alternatively, interested/interesting, corrupted/corrupt, adopt/adapt, continuous/contiguous. There are in fact entire specialized dictionaries, listing the paronyms in pairs and explaining the difference. I own one such Dictionary of Paronyms in dead-tree form.


The word you are looking for is "eggcorn". That's the name of the specific type of malapropism you describe.

  • 2
    Hi Z Breezy! Could you please include a definition for "eggcorn"?
    – Dog Lover
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 3:14
  • This statement is incorrect. An EGGCORN isn't the general misuse of a word, but rather the misuse of a "turn of phrase", or a 'saying'. It can be a single word, but it can also be the misuse of multiple words, the amount of words is contingent on the eggcorn someone is saying. An eggcorn also can't be a one off, it has to be a mistake that's very common, so common in fact, that the people who continue to use the eggcorn, have no clue that the statement they continue to repeat is an incorrect, statement, and considered to be an eggcorn.
    – JΛYDΞV
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 7:02

It should be a 'Solecism' which means " a nonstandard or ungrammatical usage - e.g. "unflammable", or "they was"


I might call it a semantic error, or simply "the wrong word". However, my first instinct would be very much mistaken (and not for the first time.) Semantic errors are computer programming errors, although a sentence may be grammatically correct, the actual meaning is nonsense.

enter image description here

Wikipedia comes to the rescue and says:

Lexical selection errors are based on semantic relations such as synonymy, antonymy or membership of the same lexical field. For this reason the mental lexicon is structured in terms of semantic relationships.

Target: George’s wife
Error: George’s life

Lexical selection error icludes malapropisms. This excerpt is taken from An Encyclopedia of Language edited by N.E. Collinge

enter image description here

  • I was hoping for something more technical than "the wrong word". The wikipedia page you linked (and the example you supplied) seem to indicate that Lexical Selection Errors tend to me more of "slip of the tongue" issues, where the speaker knows what the tend but trip over themselves (and select the wrong word). In such a case the speaker would typically be aware of the mistake (if not immediately, after what they said is repeated back at least). For what I'm looking for, the speaker would believe they selected the correct word, but in fact did not (even if repeated back).
    – Doc
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:22
  • Imagine a scenario like what I gave in the question. "I empathize with you." -> "You mean you sympathize?" -> "No, empathize." -> [explains the difference] -> "Oh, in that case, yes, I mean sympathize"
    – Doc
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:24
  • @Doc That's precisely what a malapropism is. The person unintentionally selects the wrong word, and quite often, it involves very similar sounding words. The name stems from a character in a book or play (not sure which, but info is in the link within my answer) named Mrs. Malaprop. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:30
  • @JohnQPublic Mrs Malaprop was a character in 'The Rivals' by Richard Sheridan (1725). There are also Spoonerisms: 'Texas has a lot of electrical votes'. Not sure where that fits among your eggplants et al. The only two of these things in the ODE are Malapropisms and Spoonerisms. As far as I'm concerned two's enough for me!.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:39
  • Thanks @WS2. I knew the story, and I was reminded of it thanks to MW (thanks for not making me look it up). I'm familiar with Spoonerisms too; to me, this isn't a Spoonerism because they're sometimes intentional and other times, are just the slip of the tongue. In either case, with a Spoonerism, the speaker is aware of the difference. Forgive me for linking a children's learning site, but it explains my point on Spoonerisms perfectly. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:45

Malapropism: an act or habit of misusing words ridiculously, especially by the confusion of words that are similar in sound.

an instance of this, as in “Lead the way and we'll precede.”

  • 1
    Hello, Brian. Didn't you notice that Doc (in John Q Public's answer) has already said this? Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 19:39
  • A comment is not an answer, so creating an answer by expanding on a comment is fine.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 8:35

The question relates simply to misusing a word in a sentence. The simplest answer he/she is looking for is "malapropism": mal=not + propism=appropriate.

  • 1
    Welcome, @kaz-latven. You'll notice that malapropism is already listed as an answer; you might consider defending its use in the comment of that answer. Your second paragraph is quite helpful to the original questioner. The rest of your answer might tend too much toward content that is not appropriate in this format. Check out english.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer and english.stackexchange.com/help/be-nice for more information. Thanks, and welcome to ELU!
    – Nonnal
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 1:59
  • This post is a comment on other answers in general, and on Brian's in particular. It's not an attempt at an answer.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 0:30
  • I don't think Sheridan explained the derivation of the word, so this could be useful, but it's normal to write more than a couple of sentences in an answer.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 8:41

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