Isn’t it annoying how many different words there are
to describe how to irk somebody? Or maybe it’s
aggravating. Or is it irritating?
The words aggravate, annoy, and
irritate are often used interchangeably in
writing. While they do share a very similar meaning,
there are subtle differences that make each word
distinct from the others.
According to Merriam-Webster Online, all
three words share a common reference to
disturbing or provoking anger or displeasure.
However, looking more in depth at each word’s
definition may help you find a very specific use for
each word in your writing.
Aggravate, according to Merriam-Webster’s
Collegiate Dictionary means “to make
heavy” or “to make worse, more serious, or more
severe.” In reference to provoking anger or
displeasure, the most common definition we associate
with the word aggravate actually takes on a
more physical connotation, inducing such provocation
“through persistent and often petty goading
[pricking or prodding].” It
implies the negative intensification of an existing
condition or situation (making it worse than it
Ex. Honey, be careful not to aggravate your
wound by picking at it!
Ex. Her rapidly clenching fists and firm set of her
jaw revealed how deeply the words aggravated
Annoy means “to disturb or irritate especially
by repeated acts” or “to harass especially by quick
brief attacks.” Thus, annoy seems to take on a
connotation that entails more intention behind the
provocation, along with a sort of continual
pestering. The continuity of the
action seems to be an important connotation.
Ex. Chris knows how to annoy his younger
sister; all he has to do is play country music while
she’s doing homework.
Irritate means “to provoke impatience,
anger, or displeasure in,” among other similar
definitions. Its definition seems to have the
broadest scope and can refer to a variety of causes
or results of irritation. It has
a connotation of inflammation.
Ex. That clicking noise irritates me. We need
to find out what it is.
Stevens is a 2009 graduate of Rice University with a
degree in English. She has worked at the Student Success Center
before. She will be teaching English in Namibia for two
years before returning to write a memoir, because who
doesn't these days? For now, she is content to read them,
among other books, and to study and discuss all things
Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam Webster, Inc. 2008. 6
Aug. 2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/>.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed.
Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2007.