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.