Monthly Archives: October 2014

So, what’s the difference between irritate and aggravate?

Over the past two years the Scribe has discussed some of the (far too many) words that are used as synonyms even though they don’t really have the same meaning.  Over time, disparate words take on a secondary meaning and robs the skillful writer of the right word for the job.  *Sigh*  So, in a last rearguard effort to save the original meanings some of these words, the Scribe reaches out to his legions of followers to help protect two of his favorite, and subtly different, words that describe negative situations—irritate and aggravate.

Let’s begin with some examples:

  • The person loudly talking on his cell phone on the MAX Yellow Line was irritating.  (Right)
  • The person loudly talking on his cell phone on the MAX Yellow Line was aggravating.  (Wrong)
  • The already bad traffic situation from Wilsonville to downtown Portland was aggravated by a light dusting of snow.  (Right)
  • The already bad traffic situation from Wilsonville to downtown Portland was irritated by a light dusting of snow.  (Wrong)

What makes one word wrong and another word right in these examples?  It comes down to definitions:  to aggravate is to make something go from bad to worse—but to irritate is to annoy.  Although the two meanings are similar (in that they both describe a negative situation), they are not the same.

So next time you’re stuck on the MAX with a rider jabbering on his cell phone, tell him that his conversation is irritating you—not aggravating you.  Of course, if you think that he understands the difference between irritate and aggravate and you want to annoy him right back, then use aggravate!

That is all for now …

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