It's tempting to think that bemused is the opposite of amused. However, that's not quite correct. These rhyming words describe two different types of reactions, and mixing them up may lead to unnecessary confusion!
If you've ever used amused and bemused interchangeably, you're not alone. However, once you know how different their definitions are, you likely won't make that mistake again.
- amused - entertained or pleased
- bemused - confused or bewildered
For example, someone with an amused expression is happy with what they're seeing. Someone with a bemused expression doesn't understand what's going on.
The word amused is the past participle form of the verb amuse — "to entertain." In this form, it can function as a participial adjective or as a past tense verb to describe the entertainment.
When you use amused as an adjective, you're describing the person who is seeing something entertaining. For example:
- Jeffrey was amused when the clown made balloon animals.
- Our cat was amused by the birds outside the window.
- The amused audience laughed at the comedian's jokes.
- When babies are amused, they often smile and giggle.
- Her amused expression told me that she wasn't mad anymore.
Amused can also function as a past tense verb when referencing the entertainment itself. For example:
- The clown amused the children with his balloon animal tricks.
- The squawking birds outside the window amused our cat.
- All of the comedian's jokes amused the audience.
- The baby's grandfather amused her with funny voices.
- My silly comment amused her, even though she said she was still mad.
A popular misuse of the word bemused is "secretly amused." Some writers may use the phrase "bemused smile" to show that someone is secretly enjoying what they're seeing. Other writers may mistakenly use bemused to mean "unamused." However, both of these definitions are incorrect. Bemused means "confused," and using it incorrectly will only bemuse your reader.
Like amused, bemused is the past participle of the verb bemuse. It's most often used as a participial adjective to describe someone who doesn't understand what they are witnessing. For example:
- I'm bemused by your strange answers on the math test.
- When people make fun of Kyle, he feels bemused and upset.
- The dog seemed bemused by his owner's request.
- Our family was bemused when the neighbors threatened to sue us.
- The jury was bemused by the witness's confusing testimony.
When bemused functions as a past tense verb, it describes the situation that is causing the confusion. For example:
- Your strange answers on the math test bemused me.
- Their insults upset and bemused Kyle.
- The owner's request bemused the dog.
- Our neighbor's threat to sue bemused our family.
- The witness's confusing testimony bemused the jury.
Using the correct word always matters, but in the case of amused vs. bemused, it matters quite a lot. Substituting bemused for amused totally changes the meaning of a sentence. For example:
- The movie amused me. (I found it funny.)
- The movie bemused me. (I found it confusing.)
- Eduardo was amused when his brother tickled him. (He liked being tickled.)
- Eduardo was bemused when his brother tickled him. (The tickling confused him.)
- Mr. Adler's jokes always amuse his students. (They love his jokes.)
- Mr. Adler's jokes always bemuse his students. (They don't understand his jokes.)
Using these words interchangeably could result in misunderstandings (and in Mr. Adler's case, possibly hurt feelings). Be sure you really mean "bewildered" when you're using the word bemused.
Making mistakes in writing and grammar can be discouraging. But keep in mind that common vocabulary errors such as using amused and bemused synonymously are quite common — in fact, lots of other similar-sounding word pairs fall into the same category! Master word choice and avoid writing errors with a guide to commonly confused words in the English language.