An in-class exercise asked us the difference between "aggravating," "annoying" and "irritating." Feeling excessively responsible, I grabbed a dictionary to look them up.
The first word under the entry for "annoying"? Irritating.
How aggravating. How is that supposed to help me distinguish the subtle distinctions between these words? Fail, Webster. Not quite epic, but still a fail.
Then again... if Webster makes little distinction between these words and if most speakers confuse them or use them interchangeably, can we really say these fine degrees of distinction exist?
To precisely use words that express precise ideas is a great tool for great writing. But when the lines between words become so blurred that readers don't recognize the difference anymore, then who is going to appreciate all of our dictionary searching and stylebook scouring to find just the right word?
Choosing the right word is important -- but it's equally important not to cling onto fine-grained distinctions that may not really exist anymore.