boy-666803_640If you live in one of the early caucus or primary states, I’d wager you’re growing irritated with the number and tenor of the political ads. If you’re a political junkie, maybe you’re just annoyed by them. If you’ve begun muting them, they’ve clearly become an aggravation.

Regardless of your level of distaste with political discourse these days, try not to use irritate or annoy as synonyms for aggravate. That annoys style purists. They explain that you can’t aggravate a person—only a condition, circumstance, or thing. Others are less rigid about using the two words interchangeably. They point out that they’ve been used interchangeably since the 16th century.

I’m with those who point to the slightly different meanings of the two words. As writers we should always be careful to be as precise as possible, so take care to use the word that corresponds most closely to your intended meaning.

Aggravate comes from the Latin, meaning to “make heavy or burden down” (OED). In modern usage we use it to mean make worse, or exacerbate. It can also mean annoy or exasperate, legitimate synonyms for irritate. Note these examples:

Frigid temperatures aggravated Don’s war injuries and he limped more than usual.

Irritated would not be incorrect in this sentence, but aggravated is more precise; Don’s condition was made worse as evidenced by his increased limping.

The teens incessant bickering aggravated Betty’s stress.

BUT        The teens incessant bickering irritated Betty.

Aggravated is correct in the first example because Betty’s condition (stress) was made worse by the bickering teens.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea aggravated an already fragile relationship with the West.

BUT        Ukrainians are still irritated by Russian military presence.

In each of the second examples above, annoyed could replace irritated without changing the meaning of the sentence. Just remember that aggravate means worsen and be careful about using it as a synonym for irritate.

None of this has anything to do with aggravated assault—a legal term. Though politicians who conduct scorched earth campaigns shouldn’t be surprised if there are folks who wish to do them bodily harm.

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