Improve Your Writing – Misused Words

Misused Words

From the Misused Words File – Aggravate vs. Irritate

This post is the first in a series to help you improve your writing. Part of producing writing that is high-quality is choosing the right word for the right situation. The word you choose may be grammatically correct. It may even convey what you’re trying to get across to your reader. There may, however, be some nuance in it’s meaning that makes one word a better choice over another.

We start the series with looking at two words that are close in meaning, but can create different images for your reader.

First, let’s look at their definitions:


  1. make (a problem, injury, or offense) worse or more serious.
    “military action would only aggravate the situation”
  2. informal
    annoy or exasperate (someone), especially persistently.
    “the gesture aggravated me even more”


make (someone) annoyed, impatient, or angry.
“his tone irritated her”


When you look at these two words, it’s hare to spot a difference. The contextual sentences are a clue. When you use aggravate, it should be in the context of making a situation that is already bad, worse.


The word irritate signifies that a situation that may have been fine has been made bad by some outside force.

The nuance here is that to aggravate is used with a situation is going from bad to worse. To irritate means going from neutral or good to bad.