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Buck's English: Misuse of words can be exasperating

Exasperate, exacerbate have different meanings
BY GENE OWENS Published: March 5, 2013

Buck's friend Wally showed up at Curly's Soonerco with a couple of questions about a sports column. One sentence read:

“The Heat blistered the Thunder 110-100 Thursday night in a game that was supposed to solve OKC's Miami problem but instead just exasperated them.”

“I don't believe you can exasperate a problem,” said Wally. “You might be able to exacerbate one, however. Also, the word ‘problem' is singular, and therefore the proper word referring to it at the end of the sentence is not ‘them,' but ‘it.'”

Buck reckons the game could have exasperated the heat, but it could only have exacerbated the problem. So if “them” referred to problems, it was the wrong word, and “problem” should have been plural. In any event, the pronoun referred to should have been made clear.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “exasperate” as, “To make very angry or impatient; annoy greatly.” Merriam-Webster's agrees.

Since only thinking, conscious beings can feel anger or impatience, it follows that mindless problems can't be exasperated. But you can exacerbate them: “Increase the severity, violence, or bitterness of; aggravate.”

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