Aggravate and Irritate

Commonly Confused Words

Is the man on the left aggravated or irritated by the behavior of the passenger sitting next to him?. (Tom Hussey/Getty Images)

The words aggravate and irritate are often used interchangeably, but there's a difference between them that's worth keeping in mind.

Definitions

The verb aggravate means to make (something) worse or more serious: "Losing your temper will only aggravate the problem." In informal usage, aggravate can also mean to annoy or exasperate (someone), but a number of style guides insist that you can't aggravate a person--only a condition, circumstance, or thing.

The verb irritate means to make (someone) annoyed, impatient, or angry: "Your question seemed to irritate the teacher." Irritate can also mean to make (something) sore or sensitive: "Exposing yourself to the sun can irritate your skin."

Also see the usage notes below.

Examples

  • Stress can aggravate back pain.
     
  • "Members of the Council expressed the hope that the two parties would be able to settle the question peacefully by negotiation and that meanwhile neither party would do anything to aggravate the situation."
    (Richard Hiscocks, The Security Council: A Study in Adolescence. The Free Press, 1973) 
  • "Everything about Brenda seems to irritate her mother."
    (Mary Morrissy, "Emergency." All Over Ireland, 2015)
     
  • "Taking daily doses of aspirin—as is sometimes recommended as a way to help prevent heart disease—can also irritate the stomach."
    (Karen J. Carlson et al., The New Harvard Guide to Women's Health, 2004)

    Usage Notes

    • "Aggravate comes from the Latin verb aggravre, which meant 'to make heavier,' that is, 'to add to the weight of.' It also had the extended senses 'to annoy' and 'to oppress.' Some people claim that aggravate can only mean 'to make worse,' and not 'to irritate,' on the basis of the word's etymology. But in doing so, they ignore not only an English sense in use since the 17th century, but also one of the original Latin ones. Sixty-eight percent of the Usage Panel approves of its use in It's the endless wait for luggage that aggravates me the most about air travel."
      ("aggravate," The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2000)
    • "It turns out that the original meaning of aggravate (1530) was not 'to make worse,' but 'to make heavy; to load, burden, weigh down.' That meaning is now obsolete; it disappeared sometime in the seventeenth century. The Morrises [in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage] meaning 'to make worse' didn't come along until 1597; that may mean that the two meanings were in simultaneous use, but by ignoring the one that was recorded earliest the Morrises, in effect, slant the question. . . .

      "At any rate, . . . it is too late to stop people from using [aggravate] to mean 'exasperate, or provoke,' because they've been doing it since 1611 (Cotgrave: 'Aggravanter, to aggravate, exasperate'). Among writers who have used aggravate to mean 'exasperate' are Richardson, Thackeray, and Dickens, which should be enough to make the word respectable in any company."
      (Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek. Pantheon Books, 1980)

    Practice

    (a) My kid brother would _____ my friends by threatening them with his new water gun.

    (b) A warmer climate could _____ some urban pollution problems.

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Aggravate and Irritate

    (a) My kid brother would irritate my friends by threatening them with his new water gun.

    (b) A warmer climate could aggravate some urban pollution problems.

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words