The annoying nature of your irritating behavior really aggravates me

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.


  1. Haha, I love the title of your blog. And I completely agree with you. I feel that some words such as annoying and irritating can be very hard to to distinguish between when trying to choose which one would fit best to what one is trying to say.

  2. I know I had a hell of a time doing that worksheet! It makes the journalistic process a bit tedious, but at least we expand our vocabulary?

  3. Good point here. Still though, I don't think journalists should altogether abandon fine distinctions in the English language, even if nobody else is aware of them anymore. If we don't try to preserve these distinctions, who will? One thing I've learned about this class is that the English language has a vast potential for expressing ideas. I'd hate to see some of that potential disappear.

  4. I have to agree it is really frustrating to have to look up every fine distinction of what a word means, but it is also pretty cool that each word has subtle differences so that writers can be more specific in what they are trying to say without having to use multiple sentences to try and explain.