Using the right word can matter. Using the wrong word can matter even more. I once lost a potential writing gig because I used “who” instead of “whom” in a proposal letter. (And I still have trouble getting “who” and “whom” right.) Even just one incorrectly used word – especially when you’re trying to make a great impression–can ruin everything. Is that unfair? Yes… but it does happen
How many of these do you get wrong?
Using the right word can matter. Using the wrong word can matter even more. I once lost a potential writing gig because I used “who” instead of “whom” in a proposal letter.
(And I still have trouble getting “who” and “whom” right.)
Even just one incorrectly used word–especially when you’re trying to make a great impression–can ruin everything. Is that unfair? Yes… but it does happen.
To make sure that doesn’t happen to you, I’ve collected some of the most common incorrectly used words from other posts into one epic post. (Thanks to all the readers along the way who offered their own examples, many of which are included here.)
Here we go.
Adverse and averse
Adverse means harmful or unfavorable: “Adverse market conditions caused the IPO to be poorly subscribed.” Averse refers to feelings of dislike or opposition: “I was averse to paying $18 a share for a company that generates no revenue.”
But, hey, feel free to have an aversion to adverse conditions.
Advise and advice
Aside from the two words being pronounced differently (the s in advise sounds like az), 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…”
Affect and effect
Verbs first. Affect means to influence: “Impatient investors affected our roll-out date.”Effect means to accomplish something: “The board effected a sweeping policy change.”
How you 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: “Once he was fired he was given 20 minutes to gather his personal effects.” Affect refers to an emotional state, so unless you’re a psychologist you probably have little reason to use it.
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.
Award and reward
An award is a prize. Musicians win Grammy Awards. Car companies win J.D. Power awards. Employees win Employee of the Month awards. Think of an award as the result of a contest or competition.
A reward is something given in return for effort, achievement, hard work, merit, etc. A sales commission is a reward. A bonus is a reward. A free trip for landing the highest number of new customers is a reward.
Be happy when your employees win industry or civic awards, and reward them for the hard work and sacrifices they make to help your business grow.
Between and among
Use between when you name separate and individual items. Take “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. Like, “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 saybetween. If there are two candidates you could say, “I just can’t decide between them.”
Bring and take
Both have to do with objects you move or carry. The difference is in the point of reference: You bring things here and you take them there. You ask people to bring something to you, and you ask people to take something to someone or somewhere else.
“Can you bring an appetizer to John’s party”? Nope.
Compliment and complement
Compliment means to say something nice. Complement means added to, enhanced, improved, completed, or brought close to perfection.
I can compliment your staff and their service, but if you have no current openings you have a full complement of staff. Or your new app may complement your website.
For which I may decide to compliment you.
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 plan to have continual meetings with your accountant: The former should never, ever stop, and the other (mercifully) should.
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 standardor rule or benchmark. Then use criteria for all the times there are multiple specifications or multiple standards involved.
Discreet and discrete
Discreet means careful, cautious, showing good judgment: “We made discreet inquiries to determine whether the founder was interested in selling her company.”
Discrete means individual, separate, or distinct: “We analyzed data from a number of discrete market segments to determine overall pricing levels.” And if you get confused, remember: You don’t use “discretion” to work through sensitive issues; you exercise discretion.
Elicit and illicit
Elicit means to draw out or coax. Think of elicit as the mildest form of extract. If one lucky survey respondent will win a trip to the Bahamas, the prize is designed to elicit responses.
Illicit means illegal or unlawful, and while I suppose you could elicit a response at gunpoint, you probably shouldn’t.
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 common 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 decide, “Is thereanyway (say it fast) you can help me?” sounds right. “Is there any (small pause) way you can help me?” does.
Evoke and invoke
To evoke is to call to mind; an unusual smell might evoke a long-lost memory. Toinvoke 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.
Or something like that.
Farther and further
Farther involves a physical distance: “Florida is farther from New York than Tennessee.” Further involves a figurative distance: “We can take our business plan no further.”
So, as we say in the South (and that “we” has included me), “I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you,” or “I ain’t gonna trust you no further.”
Fewer and less
Use fewer when referring to items you can count, like “fewer hours” or “fewer dollars.”
Use “less” when referring to items you can’t (or haven’t tried to) count, like “less time” or “less money.”