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‘Aggravate’ or ‘Irritate’?

In the past, some experts said you should avoid using “aggravate” to mean “annoy” or “irritate,” but such use is common and actually has a long history.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
aggravate (not irritate) in the dictionary

In the past, some experts said you should avoid using “aggravate” to mean “annoy” or “irritate.”

Aggravate

The verb “to aggravate” came to English from a Latin word that means “to make heavier.” The same root gives us the words “grief” and “gravity.” 

In Latin, it meant to make things heavier, not just heavy—in other words, worse—and the argument that “aggravate” must mean “to make something worse” instead of just “to annoy or irritate” hinges on that origin. It can refer to a feeling or a physical problem:

  • Having your friend text me right after our fight just aggravated the situation.
  • I know you meant well, but Sarah is allergic to flowers, so sending roses when she had a cold actually aggravated her symptoms.

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But, despite its origin, people started using “aggravate” to mean “annoy” or “irritate” almost right away.

The adjective “aggravating” even more forcefully took on the meaning of “annoying” or “irritating.” In fact, you’ll find “aggravating” used in this way more than any other way:

  • You realize that it’s aggravating when you take my pens, right?

Irritate

“To irritate” comes from a Latin word that means “to excite, provoke or annoy.” It can also describe a mood or a physical problem:

  • Your constant banging on that drum is irritating me.
  • Wool tends to irritate my skin.

What Should You Do?

The admonition to avoid using “aggravate” to mean “irritate” isn’t particularly important. The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage panel that votes on usages that could be controversial, and in the 2005 survey, 83 percent of the usage panel thought that using “aggravate” to mean “irritate” was acceptable. But you still may occasionally hear a complaint or have an editor who is in that 17 percent that still thinks it’s wrong.

In formal situations or if you’re feeling especially sticklerish, you may want to avoid using “aggravate” to mean “irritate.”

I know you have an innate talent for rubbing people the wrong way, Jack, but why for the love of God would you aggravate the vice president? ["Irritate" would be a better choice unless the vice president was already upset.] — Sasha Roiz playing Parker in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow"

Using “aggravating” to mean “irritating” is safer, but some people may still object.

Quick and Dirty Tip

One way to remember that “aggravate” means “to make something worse,” is when you hear police talk about aggravated assault on your favorite crime show, remind yourself that aggravated assault is worse-than-normal assault, just like you make people’s mood worse when you aggravate them or make a situation worse when you aggravate it. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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