20 (plus) things smart people never say.
We all appreciate the importance of good clear communication when speaking to our peers and people that we want to impress.
And front and center in making a good impression is being able to avoid putting your “foot in your mouth” when trying to get our point across to other people.
With that in mind I have complied below a list of are some words (as well as non-words) and phrases to avoid...unless you want to look like a dill!
MADE UP WORDS (i.e. these aren't real)
Cromulent – Doesn’t actually mean "more than acceptable" or "more than adequate";
Dickety – Is NOT a legitimate word to replace twenty.
Dumbening – Is NOT the scientific term for “the process of becoming more stupid.”
Embiggen – doesn’t actually mean “To make something better. The opposite of belittle”
Esquilax – Isn’t actually “a legendary horse born with the head of a rabbit and the body of a rabbit”
Faxtrola – is not the original technical name for a “Fax machine”.
Introubulate – Is not the correct term for the act of getting someone into trouble
Malparkage – Isn’t the correct term for being illegally parked.
Onetuplet – Is not the medical term for “child not born as part of a multiple-birth pregnancy”
Quidditch – Is not a real game (sorry Harry Potter Fans)
Scientician – Is not another term for a scientist.
Successmanship – Is not actually an official course that you can take to be more successful.
Tromboner – is not the correct term for someone who plays the trombone.
Unpossible – Is not a synonym for “impossible”
WORDS OFTEN MISS-USED
Advise and advice
Aside from the two words being pronounced differently (the s in advise sounds like a z), advise is a verb while advice is a noun. Advice is what you give (whether or not the recipient is interested in that gift is a different issue altogether) when you advise someone.
So, "Thank you for the advise" is incorrect, while "I advise you not to bore me with your advice in the future" is correct if pretentious.
If you run into trouble, just say each word out loud and you'll instantly know which makes sense; there's no way you'd ever say, "I advice you to..."
Well and good
Anyone who has children uses good more often than he or she should. Since kids pretty quickly learn what good means, "You did good, honey" is much more convenient and meaningful than "You did well, honey."
But that doesn't mean good is the correct word choice.
Good is an adjective that describes something; if you did a good job, then you do good work. Well is an adverb that describes how something was done; you can do your job well.
Where it gets tricky is when you describe, say, your health or emotional state. "I don't feel well" is grammatically correct, even though many people (including me) often say, "I don't feel too good." On the other hand, "I don't feel good about how he treated me" is correct; no one says, "I don't feel well about how I'm treated."
Confused? If you're praising an employee and referring to the outcome say, "You did a good job." If you're referring to how the employee performed say, "You did incredibly well."
And while you're at it, stop saying good to your kids and use great instead, because no one--especially a kid--ever receives too much praise.
If and whether
If and whether are often interchangeable. If a yes/no condition is involved, then feel free to use either: "I wonder whether Jim will finish the project on time" or "I wonder if Jim will finish the project on time." (Whether sounds a little more formal in this case, so consider your audience and how you wish to be perceived.)
What's trickier is when a condition is not involved. "Let me know whether Marcia needs a projector for the meeting" isn't conditional, because you want to be informed either way. "Let me know if Marcia needs a projector for the meeting" is conditional, because you only want to be told if she needs one.
And always use if when you introduce a condition. "If you hit your monthly target, I'll increase your bonus" is correct; the condition is hitting the target and the bonus is the result. "Whether you are able to hit your monthly target is totally up to you" does not introduce a condition (unless you want the employee to infer that your thinly veiled threat is a condition of ongoing employment).
Stationary and stationery
You write on stationery. You get business stationery, such as letterhead and envelopes, printed.
But that box of envelopes is not stationary unless it's not moving--and even then it's still stationery.
Sympathy and empathy
Sympathy is acknowledging another person's feelings. "I am sorry for your loss" means you understand the other person is grieving and want to recognize that fact.
Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes and relate to how the person feels, at least in part because you've experienced those feelings yourself.
The difference is huge. Sympathy is passive; empathy is active. (Here's a short video by Brené Brown that does a great job of describing the difference--and how empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection.)
Know the difference between sympathy and empathy, live the difference, and you'll make a bigger difference in other people's lives.
Criterion and criteria
A criterion is a principle or standard. If you have more than one criterion, those are referred to as criteria.
But if you want to be safe and you only have one issue to consider, just say standard or rule or benchmark. Then use criteria for all the times there are multiple specifications or multiple criterion (OK, standards) involved.
Mute and moot
Think of mute like the button on your remote; it means unspoken or unable to speak. In the U.S., moot refers to something that is of no practical importance; a moot point is one that could be hypothetical or even (gasp!) academic. In British English, moot can also mean debatable or open to debate.
So if you were planning an IPO, but your sales have plummeted, the idea of going public could be moot. And if you decide not to talk about it anymore, you will have gone mute on the subject.
Peak and peek
A peak is the highest point; climbers try to reach the peak of Mount Everest. Peek means quick glance, as in giving major customers a sneak peek at a new product before it's officially unveiled, which hopefully helps sales peak at an unimaginable height.
Occasionally a marketer will try to "peak your interest" or "peek your interest," but in that case the right word is pique, which means "to excite." (Pique can also mean "to upset," but hopefully that's not what marketers intend.)
Lie and Lay
We’re all pretty clear on the lie that means an untruth. It’s the other usage that trips us up. Lie also means to recline: “Why don’t you lie down and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” Lie is something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay.
It’s more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is—you guessed it—lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.”
Bring and Take
Bring and take both describe transporting something or someone from one place to another, but the correct usage depends on the speaker’s point of view. Somebody brings something to you, but you take it to somewhere else: “Bring me the mail, then take your shoes to your room.”
Just remember, if the movement is toward you, use bring; if the movement is away from you, use take.
Ironic and Coincidental
A lot of people get this wrong. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s not ironic—it’s coincidental (and bad luck).
Ironic has several meanings, all of which include some type of reversal of what was expected. Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but clearly means another. Situational irony is when a result is the opposite of what was expected. O. Henry was a master of situational irony. In “The Gift of the Magi,” Jim sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair, and she sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Each character sold something precious to buy a gift for the other, but those gifts were intended for what the other person sold. That is true irony.
If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s coincidental. If you drive up to the mountains to ski, and there was more snow back at your house, that’s ironic.
Imply and Infer
To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. As a general rule, the speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.
Nauseous and Nauseated
Nauseous has been misused so often that the incorrect usage is accepted in some circles. Still, it’s important to note the difference. Nauseous means causing nausea; nauseated means experiencing nausea.
So, if your circle includes ultra-particular grammar sticklers, never say “I’m nauseous“ unless you want them to be snickering behind your back.
Comprise and Compose
These are two of the most commonly misused words in the English language. Comprise means to include; compose means to make up.
It all comes down to parts versus the whole. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: “A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves.” When you use compose, you put the pieces first: “Fifty states compose (make up) the United States of America.”
Farther and Further
Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. “I can’t run any farther,” but “I have nothing further to say.”
Tip - if you can substitute “more” or “additional,” use further.
Fewer and Less
Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted; use less when referring to a whole: “You have fewer dollars, but less money.”
Aggressive and enthusiastic
Aggressive is a very popular business adjective: aggressive sales force, aggressive revenue projections, aggressive product rollout. But unfortunately, aggressive means ready to attack, or pursuing aims forcefully, possibly unduly so.
So do you really want an "aggressive" sales force?
Of course, most people have seen aggressive used that way for so long they don't think of it negatively; to them it just means hard-charging, results-oriented, driven, etc., none of which are bad things.
But some people may not see it that way. So consider using words like enthusiastic, eager, committed, dedicated, or even (although it pains me to say it) passionate.
Evoke and invoke
To evoke is to call to mind; an unusual smell might evoke a long-lost memory. To invoke is to call upon something: help, aid, or maybe a higher power.
So hopefully all your branding and messaging efforts evoke specific emotions in potential customers. But if they don't, you might consider invoking the gods of commerce to aid you in your quest for profitability.
Continuously and continually
Both words come from the root continue, but they mean very different things. Continuously means never ending. Hopefully your efforts to develop your employees are continuous, because you never want to stop improving their skills and their future.
Continual means whatever you're referring to stops and starts. You might have frequent disagreements with your co-founder, but unless those discussions never end (which is unlikely, even though it might feel otherwise), then those disagreements are continual.
That's why you should focus on continuous improvement but only plan to have continual meetings with your accountant: The former should never, ever stop, and the other (mercifully) should.
Systemic and systematic
If you're in doubt, systematic is almost always the right word to use. Systematic means arranged or carried out according to a plan, method, or system. That's why you can take a systematic approach to continuous improvement, or do a systematic evaluation of customer revenue or a systematic assessment of market conditions.
Systemic means belonging to or affecting the system as a whole. Poor morale could be systemic to your organization. Or bias against employee diversity could be systemic.
So if your organization is facing a pervasive problem, take a systematic approach to dealing with it--that's probably the only way you'll overcome it.
Impact and affect (and effect)
Many people (including until recently me) use impact when they should use affect. Impact doesn't mean to influence; impact means to strike, collide, or pack firmly.
Affect means to influence: "Impatient investors affected our rollout date."
And to make it more confusing, effect means to accomplish something: "The board effected a sweeping policy change."
How you correctly use effect or affect can be tricky. For example, a board can affect changes by influencing them and can effect changes by directly implementing them. Bottom line, use effect if you're making it happen, and affect if you're having an impact on something that someone else is trying to make happen.
As for nouns, effect is almost always correct: "Employee morale has had a negative effect on productivity." Affect refers to an emotional state, so unless you're a psychologist, you probably have little reason to use it.
So stop saying you'll "impact sales" or "impact the bottom line." Use affect.
Between and among
Use between when you name separate and individual items. "The team will decide between Mary, Marcia, and Steve when we fill the open customer service position." Mary, Marcia, and Steve are separate and distinct, so between is correct.
Use among when there are three or more items but they are not named separately. "The team will decide among a number of candidates when we fill the open customer service position." Who are the candidates? You haven't named them separately, so among is correct.
And we're assuming there are more than two candidates; otherwise you'd say between. If there are two candidates you could say, "I just can't decide between them."
Everyday and every day
Every day means, yep, every day--each and every day. If you ate a bagel for breakfast each day this week, you had a bagel every day.
Everyday means commonplace or normal. Decide to wear your "everyday shoes" and that means you've chosen to wear the shoes you normally wear. That doesn't mean you have to wear them every single day; it just means wearing them is a usual occurrence.
Another example is along and a long: Along means moving in a constant direction or a line, or in the company of others, while a long means of great distance or duration. You wouldn't stand in "along line," but you might stand in a long line for a long time, along with a number of other people.
A couple more examples: a while and awhile, and any way and anyway.
If you're in doubt, read what you write out loud. It's unlikely you'll think "Is there anyway you can help me?" sounds right.
And rounding it all out.
A few other phrases that anyone who wants to be seen as smart (or at least sane) should never say (thanks Donald T):-
“It’s freezing and snowing in New York–we need global warming!”
“You know, it really doesn’t matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
" If there is one word to describe Atlantic City, it’s Big Business. Or two words – Big Business.”
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