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You're not smart. You're not born into a wealthy family. And you don't have a lot of friends who can help you out financially. This lazy attitude will only aggravate those disadvantages.

Hey, guys! This is a text message I received from my mom. She was very upset with me for watching TV all day during summer break.

My question is: is "aggravate" the correct choice of word in this context? How about "exacerbate" or "heighten"?

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    Hi. Have you looked up the meaning of aggravate in a dictionary? Why do you think it might not be the correct choice of word?
    – Billy Kerr
    Jul 30, 2023 at 15:56

3 Answers 3

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Personally, I'd prefer exacerbate in the cited context, but as this definition clearly indicates, aggravate is a perfectly reasonable alternative...

exacerbate
to increase the severity, bitterness, or violence of (disease, ill feeling, etc.); aggravate.


This NGram usage chart shows compound as the top choice for the context, closely followed by exacerbate. A century ago, it was almost always aggravate, but today that's become a very distant third choice. Note that singular/plural disadvantage/s makes no real difference here, regardless of the specific verb.

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  • L:et me add a general warning here for those of you fond of using Google NGram from use analaysis: especially when you see an abrupt change in frequency around 1970-1980, but in the general case as well - you must consider that NGram is not a fair statistical sample of the English language. This has been written on often - certain kinds of articles predominate, and the disparities fluctuate over time in stereotyped ways. It does not distinguish between fiction, non-fiction, scientific articles, etc, etc. See Pechenick et al. (2015) for more on this.
    – BadZen
    Jul 31, 2023 at 16:09
  • The kind of things Pechenick et al. focus on (massive increase in prevalence of capitalized Figure, which would rarely occur outside of "technical" publications) aren't really relevant to the specific search texts in my chart. Which would still carry the same message even if the decline of aggravate in this context was somehow halved (though why that might happen is beyond me). Jul 31, 2023 at 16:19
  • No, you don't understand the point here. Hypothetically, "aggravate the disadvantages" may have actually been /increasing/ in use, but disfavored in scientific literature. More scientific literature starts to be present at the time of your "decline". It's all lumped together in NGram and averaged out together, and widespread, systematic biases during specific timeframes are well documented. You just can't tell if this hypothetical is true or not with this tool. The way in which you are using NGram to draw a particular conclusion is flawed, that's not what it's for.
    – BadZen
    Jul 31, 2023 at 16:27
  • I already knew the gist of your point. But the same dramatic decline of aggravated and rise of exacerbated, compounded is still clearly shown using NGrams English One Million corpus. I think you're just nit-picking for the sake of it. Jul 31, 2023 at 16:37
  • This is one of the problems with NGram. Read the paper, and Google, there's plenty written on this by now. Or don't, up to you. But using NGram like this is not valid corpus linguistics.
    – BadZen
    Jul 31, 2023 at 16:37
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This lazy attitude will only aggravate those disadvantages.

Attestations of usage include misuse, and definitions are often only a rudimentary guide to how words should be used; aggravate is not the mot juste here, and someone trying to use the language precisely would find another word.

You can aggravate the situation brought about by those disadvantages but you cannot aggravate the disadvantages themselves.

You are disadvantaged by your disadvantages, and the disadvantage can be aggravated by your lazy attitude.

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  • thank you for your reply. Do you think "compound your disadvantage" would work here?
    – Underwood
    Jul 30, 2023 at 17:13
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    I would say "compound your disadvantages" in the plural or only make things worse. Jul 30, 2023 at 18:57
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    @Underwood: compound didn't occur to me when I wrote my answer, but I see now it's even more common than my suggested exacerbate, so I'll include that in my chart. Despite Tim's preference for plural, the singular accounts for over one third of all instances of compound the disadvantage/s, and singular is at least as common with the other verbs, and I don't think it makes any difference which plurality you use. Jul 31, 2023 at 10:58
  • @FumbleFingers No problem with the singular in general. I just think the plural fits the existing paragraph a little better. If the paragraph had said, " ... which put you at a disadvantage." then "This lazy attitude will only compound it." would be fine. Jul 31, 2023 at 15:14
  • Yeah - it's no biggie either way, but it so happens i originally used singular to create my usage chart (without "compound"). Because "compound" kinda means "increase in number", I thought I'd better switch to plural - but I did briefly compare singular and plural usages for all three verbs, from which I concluded that the plurality doesn't make much difference here. Jul 31, 2023 at 15:22
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Her use is OK, as are your suggestions.

"Exacerbate" or "heighten" indicate the "disadvantages" themselves are increasing, whereas "aggravate" indicates that they are becoming more problematic or burdensome.

"Aggravate" also calls to mind a disease state or medicate condition, as this word is more often used in that setting, as in "the cold weather aggravates my arthritis". The "arthritis" here is not becoming worse overall, but it is situationally worse, or temporarily more painful, during the bad weather.

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