After Hours

10 wording blunders that make you look stupid


This information is also available as a PDF download. In case you want to print it out, roll it up, and smack a colleague on the nose with it.

Last year, I put together "10 grammar mistakes that make you look stupid." Some readers vehemently disagreed with my comments (including a couple of folks who pointed out that grammar should have been grammatical in the title). But most of them had their own deep-seated language peeves to share. Peeves enough to reach to the moon and back.

I thought about building on the unexpected kinship I discovered among my fellow language ranters by putting together a list of punctuation mistakes. But punctuation is a slippery, often subjective little devil -- even more so than basic grammatical constructions. Besides, there's already a fine book on that subject (Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation). So I decided to turn my attention to the common fate of a few miserably abused words. Not quite crossing the border into malapropisms (I have no quorum with that...), these words are just mangled or, in some cases, nonexistent.

Now for the disclaimer: There are plenty of regional and cultural colloquialisms. I like them. They aren't on my radar. And I realize that scads of new words arrive daily. We have new things to describe... so okay. Growth and change, blah blah blah. I'm not crazy about the rampant subversion of things into actions (my noun, my verb, my noun, my verb), but there it is. Leverage it and move on.

And of course, many words have been tossed onto the shores of modern acceptance by the seas of corrupted usage. Some have even found their way onto the pages of dictionaries less inclined to support tradition. For example, hopefully, a fine word (for an adverb), has been misused so much that it's now considered just dandy to misuse it. As in Hopefully, I'll get a raise. Listen: A dog looks hopefully at a baby who's winging peas from his high chair. It's a look filled with hope. That dog is not thinking Hopefully, I'll be able to snurfle up a few peas when nobody's looking. But I've had to let it go, and so must we all.

Still, before the Dictionary Editors Who Condone the Degeneration of Our Language legitimize all my favorite mistakes, I thought I'd toss out a few of the worst offenders. For now, anyway, these are generally accepted as wrong. Use them and you might create the impression that you aren't too bright. (Although hopefully, you are.)

#1: All intensive purposes

No: For all intensive purposes, this project has concluded. Yes: For all intents and purposes, this project has concluded. Note: I had a hard time believing this one is actually loose in the wild and not just cited anecdotally, but I've received verification from colleagues that it's fairly common.

#2: Comprise

No: The company is comprised of talented developers. Yes: The company comprises talented developers. No: Seven people comprised the project team. Yes: The project team comprised seven people. Note: Used correctly, comprise sometimes sounds weird, or stuffy, or both. There's no harm in using different phrasing, such as consists of.

#3: Heighth

No: The heighth of the case prevented us from putting the PC under the desk. Yes: The height of the case prevented us from putting the PC under the desk. Note: Unlike width and length, height doesn't end in th. But about one in five people apparently thinkth it does.

#4: Supposably

No: The application supposably blocks the installation of spyware. Yes: The application supposedly blocks the installation of spyware. Note: You'll hear this one a lot, but supposably is not a word. At least not yet.

#5: Irregardless

No: Employees should come to work irregardless of the server problems. Yes: Employees should come to work regardless of the server problems. Note: Irregardless isn't a word either, although it's commonly treated as one. Maybe with legitimate words like irrelevant and irrepressible crowding the field, the temptation to ir is overwhelming. But it might just be a case of adding a syllable to sound smarter.

#6: Infer/imply

No: When you tell me, "Your management style needs some work," are you inferring that I'm a lousy boss? Yes: When you tell me, "Your management style needs some work," are you implying that I'm a lousy boss? Note: This is hard to illustrate, because it's all about context. But the rule is this: If you're suggesting something, you're implying it. If you're interpreting what someone else is telling you, you're inferring something from what they say. It's like pitch and catch.

#7: Momento

No: Bring me back some momento from the conference. Yes: Bring me back some memento from the conference. Note: Momento is Spanish (and Italian and Portuguese) for moment; it's not a word in English. If memento gives you trouble, you can always default to souvenir (which, ironically, wasn't an English word either, but it is now).

#8: Anticlimatic

No: The last episode of The Sopranos was a little anticlimatic. Yes: The last episode of The Sopranos was a little anticlimactic. Note: Anticlimactic derives from anticlimax -- a letdown. I can't tell you why it's not anticlimaxtic. At any rate, it's never anticlimatic -- that's often said, but it's not a word. If it were, it would mean against climate. Not really a stand worth taking.

#9: Tenant/tenet

No: The policies committee has presented a list of ethical tenants for employees to follow. Yes: The policies committee has presented a list of ethical tenets for employees to follow. Note: Tenets are principles (not principals) or belief systems. Tenants are occupants.

#10: Moot/mute

No: You've been late every day for three years; yesterday's flat tire is a mute point. Yes: You've been late every day for three years; yesterday's flat tire is a moot point. Note: Different words altogether; different etymology, different meaning. But enticingly similar enough to fool the unwary. There's a fair amount of controversy over the correct usage of moot, although moot point is generally taken to mean abstract or irrelevant to this discussion. In that context (or any other I can think of), it's definitely not mute.

Bonus blunder

I was raised to believe that unique meant one of a kind and that only the most clueless moron would ever qualify it. Hearing someone say somewhat unique or very unique would elevate my smugness to near-toxic levels. Now the rules have changed. Unique can sometimes construe unusual, so it can be qualified out the wazoo. But if you actually do use it to describe something that's one of a kind, remember that it would sound a little goofy to say it's somewhat one of a kind. It is or it ain't.

About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

296 comments
stuartjd
stuartjd

"Decimate" means to destroy a great number or proportion of: "The population was decimated by a plague." It means to wipe out the majority of. There is simply no argument about this -- this is what it means: what it means in English. To argue otherwise is to commit what is known as the "etymological fallacy". This is the thoughtless assumption that the meaning of a word in its original Latin, Greek or whatever is the same as its meaning in modern English. Over half of the words in English are from Latin or Greek and scarcely a single one of them has retained its original meaning.

stuartjd
stuartjd

"Irregardless" most certainly is a word. I would have though, wrongly it seems, that someone would have to be a complete moron to deny it.

KeithBa
KeithBa

I cannot stand getting emails that are filled with twitter-like abbreviations and misspellings especially from a professional. I just received an email from a $150k per year salesman and it was filled with them. One part of the letter: "I'll get back 2 u and please don't call me mr. pelletier or sir it isn't write".

rocketmouse
rocketmouse

i.e.=id est=that is e.g.=exempli gratia=for example Um, Duh, OK?

sylvan711
sylvan711

I decided to search my manuscript for the then/than mistake, and much to my amazement found an excessive amount of "thens." Interesting that when looking for one type of error you discover another. I had started way too many sentences with "Then this happened" or "She thought about it and then etc".. These lists are fantastic.

gpopkey
gpopkey

"Your" shows possession. You're is an abbreviation of "you are". They are NOT the same thing.

sheryl.stiles
sheryl.stiles

I have thoroughly enjoyed the banter in this blog. When I was young we moved several times and I missed the instruction on punctuation. Therefore, I am terrible at it. I type everything into MS Word and then copy and paste into the comments section in an effort to correct as much as possible. All language throughout the ages has been trial and error. Everything has evolved for good or bad to something most understand. When those in this blog were stating emphatically that there was only one correct way to communicate all I could think was what Shakespeare would say about their use of language. Most of the dialogue used in that era is no longer in use today. Many of us would have to sit with a dictionary looking up words as we read simply to understand what was being communicated. The same can be said for a Steven King novel. It would be kind of fun to pull out some ancient or even antiquated dialogue and make that the buzz word or phrase for 2011. This will be the only way future generations will ever experience the deep meaning of words. Everything has been shortened to fit our busy lifestyles. We are actually moving to text speak. Gloom, despair, and agony.

WilliaMITCHELL
WilliaMITCHELL

It's just my opinion, but I don't know whether to be amazed or appalled at today's rate of illiteracy! I am here, in a college town...if you only knew! How these people ascend any ladder, in any chosen profession, is a wonder. And, how, and/or why it is accepted, .............................

bruno_ann
bruno_ann

The word MOOT actually means highly arguable or debatable. Any point can be moot if there is no time, or beneficial reason, to discuss it.

Snowden
Snowden

As in, noone has done this before. I have several business associates that are determined to use this.

DSG7
DSG7

... predominantly comes from an inability to articulate or present thoughts succinctly. People now possess a substandard lexicon of language that, due to brevity of thought in all, allows for atrocious contraction of sentences to assume people "know", or can consider individually presented statements are "like" others, or that "whatever" is a satisfactory conclusion. However, when I try to use my understanding of the English language to fully describe my thoughts, feelings and/or the relative facts, people switch off because, in this day and age, too few have the capacity for extended **listening** as part of dialogue. When people cannot be bothered to fully listen (or otherwise absorb information), is it any surprise people cannot be bothered to fully talk? Is it any surprise people can still fully talk at all?

rkasnick
rkasnick

Glad I'm not on a ship being navigated by the skipper that uses' unchartered', I'd end up on Gilligan's Island for sure, and that would be mote.

LyleTaylor
LyleTaylor

Lest we forget, dictionaries "describe" the meaning(s) of a word as it is currently or has been used - they do not "prescribe" it. The OED is an excellent example of this. Any dictionary editor who thinks and acts otherwise does a disservice to society and seriously compromises the value of their dictionary. There is no place in linguistics for people who insist that it must be this way because of some historical point or for some "logical" reason. It certainly makes sense to use words "correctly" according to common usage in order to communicate effectively and not look like an idiot, but language evolves. Who are we to try and stand in its way?

terry
terry

Since there's a bonus, it must be OVER 10 wording blunders. I thought over was a direction and more than covered amounts!

inertman
inertman

i was watching 'the universe' and 2 specific things stuck in my head. 'lonDitude' and 'further'rather than 'farther', this one drives me nuts, particularly when you are specifically talking about how far something is. unfortunately, there is, according to some dictionaries, a suitable interchangability to these words, but why would a scientist who is talking about how far something is, especially in relation to how far another thing is, use further? they lose a certain amount of credibility, imho.

tweakmaster73
tweakmaster73

"At this point in time..." Woops, it's gone.

alex.a
alex.a

People who say "begs the question" usually mean "prompts the question." Begging the question is an error of logic that assumes the hypothesis is true in order to prove it. Example: Windows XP is the best of all operating systems. How do you know? Because the installation splash screens say so! And so it is wrong to say, "This begs the question of why other operating systems are so popular." But it is correct to say, "This prompts the question of why other operating systems are so popular."

alex.a
alex.a

I also hate it when people spell "supersede" as "supercede." Supersede comes from the Latin "super," meaning "on top of," and "sedere," meaning "sit."

tweakmaster73
tweakmaster73

I got an email from a client the other day saying they "were wandering if it was fixed yet..." Yah, but wur up dere in dat part a Minnesoota ya no?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

the media and marketing people get fired if they misuse words. That'll stop the disruption of the language. Sheesh, when I went to school, we happily spoke about having a gay time down at the beach during the school holidays - and it had NOTHING to do with one's sexual preferences - say that today and people will think a totally different thing.

gfunk1
gfunk1

Hmm..Jody, your own example is working against you. I might be mistaken here, because I really don't care enough to look it up, but I don't think something can be "a little anticlimactic". It either is or isn't. Somewhat like being a little pregnant.

Mandolinface
Mandolinface

I know the battle to keep programmers from using 'deprecated' to mean 'obsolescent' is lost, but can't we get them to stop using 'architect' for 'design' and worse: the not-a-word, 'architected' for 'designed.'

melekali
melekali

This is humorous. Are native English speakers this poor in their only language or are most of the offenders ESL folks?

pk1017
pk1017

Pacific - specific I did a double take when I heard someone use the word pacific in place of specific. She really did use the word and did not mispeak.

Uncle Red Dog
Uncle Red Dog

One of my pet peeves is the use of "do not hesitate to call me", whether used in conversation (usually over the phone) or in a letter. I don't know about anyone else, but to me it smacks of insincerity. Why not just say something like "Please call me at [phone number] if you have any questions?" instead?

Stelian
Stelian

At my company I'm glad if they make a difference between your and you're, manor and manner, etc. Interestingly enough - it's always native English speakers who make those mistakes.

vijipinarayi
vijipinarayi

I agree with the points raised, but would like to do a bit of 'teaching' on the 'teacher': In the article, Point No. 6 deals with 'infer'ring and 'imply'ing. The intended point is driven home alright, but another slip seems to have crept in. Have a look at the sentences (wrong and 'right') given as example: No: When you tell me, "Your management style needs some work," are you're inferring that I'm a lousy boss? Yes: When you tell me, "Your management style needs some work," are you're implying that I'm a lousy boss? What's this "are you're" doing here? Isn't 'Are you implying...' enough?

KeithBa
KeithBa

Imaginary words that make it into the dictionary just plain piss me off. How do you feel about idioms (piss me off, for example)?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

and most of those aren't proper English as such, but just an old phrase in common usage with a common meaning. Very few common phrases are in correct modern English. Many phrases such as 'Begs the question' are actually from times when the phrase was the correct way to say it English, the use and meanings of some terms change of time.

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

Madison Avenue is responsible for the majority of the 'devolution' of language, especially after WWII, when the former German psyche squad was squirreled into the ad biz via Operation Paper Clip. I used to pilot the names (owners of the ad agencies) around the country, they were quite open with me about the fact that the forefront of psychological knowledge was being applied foremost in the area of advertising. No argument this is fact. Even prior to this Madison Avenue was cutting edge in the manipulation of mass psychology, mainly through the crafted alteration of language. H. L. Mencken famously once said "advertising is the language of mutilation." When queried he insisted he had not misspoken. Unfortunately his dead-on assessment did not produce the pause it should have. If ad copy is the language of mutilation, then advertising itself is the mutilating force. The question is what is being mutilated in Mencken's (and my own studied) view? Like, you're virtually living it, for all intents and purposes, dude. It's the culture, stoopid. Call me a prude, because I am. I don't watch television, haven't intentionally done so in years. But on the inevitable occasion, I cannot stand 1/2 second of any advertising before I'm reaching for the blood pressure medication. ...mainly because to my fellow man, their own thorough mutilation is "normal." "Would you buy it for a quarter?" ~Cyril M. Kornbluth; "The Marching Morons," Galaxy Magazine, April, 1951

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

Is anticlimactic an absolute? It being a perceptual thing dictates to me it's not. Based on my own response to things I've found to be anticlimactic, the situtation certainly varied in the magnitude of the effect they had on me and some people have not found the same situations to be anticlimactic. Where as, pregnancy is an absolute. Whether or not I perceive someone to be pregnant doesn't alter the fact they are.

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

Most ESL folks I've met have an excellent grasp of the english language (in some cases better than mine), and if they don't it's excusable for them to make mistakes with the English language. It's an extremely illogical language at times. With words that are spelled differently but sound the same, some words spelled the same but having different meanings depending on context, so it's understandable for someone who is ESL having trouble with the language. Native speakers, on the other hand, have no excuse and should ridiculed mercilessly! >:)

alex.a
alex.a

She may not have misspoken, in which case you would be sure she didn't misspeak.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

You should have seen the look on the twits face when I said that to the twit who said to me... "can you be pacific?"

melekali
melekali

I usually joke and tell them I want them to be Pacific, not Atlantic...

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

I've heard quite a few people use Pacific instead of specific. Another is "especially" and "specially". My neighbour came up with a doozy a few months back, he refered to one of my cats as "emancipated", when I said, "She looks freed from opression?" He replied, "That's not what it means." He was of course refering to the fact that my cat was quite skinny, having shed all her winter fat, she looked "emaciated".

melekali
melekali

They speaker obviously really, really wants the listener to not hesitate. This might assume everyone hesitates...

jk2001
jk2001

That's my experience too. I think that native speakers learn English, primarily, by speaking it, then transfer that into writing. People who learn the writing and speaking at the same time are probably more sensitive to writing it properly. Though I was born in the US, I spoke Japanese at home, and learned English and used it, primarily, in school. For whatever reasons, my grammar and spelling were usually very good, while my speech lagged somewhat - I mispronounced words and sometimes sounded "bookish". Fast-forward 30 years, and I was doing a temp job, doing some copy editing. I noticed that nearly all of the permanent editing staff came from bilingual and/or immigrant families. Ther's a big caveat to this anecdote; what we've noticed wasn't objective. There's a bias in what we noticed, because someone who speaks English as a second language, but cannot write it well, wasn't likely to be working with native English speakers who had poor writing skills.

dmhd
dmhd

Fancy words ? It is called lip-diddling !

melekali
melekali

What the world needs now, is a sweet, sweet grammar check (not to mention spell check)...

garth_of_the_forest
garth_of_the_forest

either that or the original article has been corrected since you posted this. I agree with your sentiment though. While a good spell-check and grammar-check will catch many mistakes, there is no substitute for actually reading what you wrote, and, in the case of important written communications, getting a good second set of eyes to scan for improper word use and the types of errors that spell-checkers routinely miss.

alex.a
alex.a

I know English is a living language and all that, and as such is constantly evolving, and that scores of words and phrases have changed their meaning over time. But I'm such an old curmudgeon . . . I hate to admit that "begs the question" is slowly but surely evolving from its original meaning.

alex.a
alex.a

Latin super, meaning "above," and cedere, meaning "to yield," would result in supercede meaning "to yield to something above." This is the exact opposite of supersede, which means "to take the place of something previous."

dmhd
dmhd

That's about as good as a speaker getting a standing ovulation !!

vijipinarayi
vijipinarayi

No, I was not 'seeing things' when I posted the comment. As you assumed, the article (blog post) was corrected later. (The same post is available in PDF format as well, and it is still showing the error.)

nentech
nentech

So everyone has a proofreader I?m sure that will happen in the real world You know The cost cutting thing The boss thinks it?s important for some strange reason

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

don't know which way to go or can't make up their mind. On book on the origin of phrases puts this term down to coming from Latin as you say, but originating in certain English towns known for their ancient places of learning. It seems some of the students couldn't make up their minds about which college to join or what subjects to do and vacillated between two like yoyos. And the more learned and settled students spoke of them in Latin as "not knowing if they want it or not." The less learned locals started using the expression to refer to anyone who kept going back on decisions say yes then no then yes then no again etc. Some centuries later this got expanded to cover people who dash back and forth as they don't know which way to go - kind of like a person pacing between two doors as they can't decide which to go through. The English language is full of such interesting histories. Some are mispronounced Latin while many others are mispronounced Norman French. I like pimp - a good old and ancient word that simply means 'helper' - but it means something totally different in modern usage.

alex.a
alex.a

Well, Ernest, I once took an English course with a college professor who claimed that the word "quaint" was derived from a certain part of the female anatomy. Another expression whose meaning is changing is "willy-nilly." Its origin is the two Latin words "velle" and "nolle" and the expression means "whether you want to or not." Many people today, however, use it as a synonym of "helter-skelter" or "every which way."

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

we used to go out to parties, play records, joke, dance, have drinks, eat, laugh and have a gay time - and it had absolutely NOTHING to do with s e x. It was OK to be at a party and say "I'm having a gay time." Hell, Streets even brought out an ice cream called a Gaytime, because it was fun to eat. Now if you say you're having a gay time at a party, they think it's only to do with a certain type of s e x u a l activity. So imagine how a phrase from a couple of centuries back can get messed up. Just look at how the media desecrate the word decimate - to kill one in ten. I've seen media reports of a village all but destroyed being spoken of as being decimated, looked like only 5% of the place still existed.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

pointing out where they likely got it from. The education system does NOT put much emphasis on correct spelling any more, add in the tendency to LEET speak means the average idiot can't spell their own name anymore. There is even one education system that promotes "it doesn't matter if you get the spelling right or not, as long as it sounds right." You can just imagine how they mess up a lot of other words etc.

nentech
nentech

I remember that one when they first showed it All of us has that little idiot Don?t take what you read in these types of discussions seriously Some of the people who post here are very funny Try rickk for a totally out of control argument Here is a link to his profile http://techrepublic.com.com/5213-6257-0.html?id=2418528&redirectTo=%2f1320-22-20.html He seems to have gone away for now But I am sure he will be back Try Absolutely for the debate type of discussion Here is a link to his profile http://techrepublic.com.com/5213-6257-0.html?id=4050336 Try apotheon for technical info or a debate about Linux v Windows Here is a link to his profile http://techrepublic.com.com/5213-6257-0.html?id=3923716&redirectTo=%2f1320-22-20.html Steer clear of Max until you know him better Here is a link to his profile http://techrepublic.com.com/5268-6257-0.html?id=2028479 He may have left TR There are a lot of interesting people around the TR site Have fun Don?t pick on the new people Keep the arguments out of the question forums That forum is for helping people with problems This is how to do the little faces you see in posts http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-22_11-5269527.html Read these for you own use and safety They are past TR discussions Windows End of Life Support (MS Bandwagon) http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=218480&messageID=2210963 Ten words or less: "I really wish Microsoft would..." http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=9&threadID=195205&messageID=2017858 100 days of Vista: Is it Windows ME all over again? http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=223583&messageID=2240417 Cross-platform open source threat: Is open source really more secure? http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=223951&messageID=2242740 You will need to know this FUD = fear, uncertainty and doubt This is a discussion about Passwords This is an important one http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=227635 Welcome to TR Enjoy yourself You can learn a lot and have some fun Colin Edit to fix typos (Damm it)

nentech
nentech

The alias you?re using has a different meaning if you?re a man Or if you?re a woman It makes it to hard to concentrate

nentech
nentech

Some of us have to work for a living So are you saying yours is the only way

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

"So companies should hire extra staff So everyone has a proofreader" Um....fairly black and white.... I'm not sure what your company policy is regarding outgoing correspondence, but my company prefers that anything read by a current or potential client doesn't make us look like we were educated at a 4th grade level, so all outgoing documents are proofread by at least 2 people before being sent, and we only have 4 employees.

nentech
nentech

In a cost efficient business no one has time to check the work of others It appears many of the people in this discussion work for an inefficient business

au561
au561

My 6th Grade teacher Mrs. Maude Gick, Bless her memory, taught us this poem: When I say it, I IMPLY it, when I hear it, I INFER it. And I've never gotten it wrong since.

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

DigitalAL is "INFERRING" that garth was saying "Hire a proof reader for everyone, that'll fix things!" When garth was infact "IMPLYING" that people read over what they wrote, and "in the case" of important documentation, have someone else check it over for you.

Editor's Picks