Aggravate - irritate

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Aggravate and irritate are a pair of words which are often confused. They sound alike, and their meanings are not far apart. Nevertheless, confusing them is a malapropism, and so can cause teachers to leap in with a red pen.

  • To aggravate means 'to make things worse'. It is used with abstract nouns, like situation ('their unhappy marriage'), offence ('an insult') or sometimes the effects of illness.
  • 'To irritate' means "to excite" in a quasi-medical sense, that is, to stimulate [the nerves or feelings, etc.]; usually, in everyday life, to excite to anger.

In colloquial speech, you may hear, in the UK at any rate, someone saying 'don't aggravate me', where an academic would say 'Don't irritate me.' School pupils can be heard to say "Ooh, she's a really aggravating teacher." A good teacher should teach them to say irritating instead.

Do not confuse 'to aggravate' with 'to irritate'.

The following sentence illustrates both aggravate and irritate at the same time:

"The young man irritated his father with his callow opinions. He then aggravated his offence by drinking too much."