There is a famous quote from Mark Twain that goes like this: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Twain was dead on. (No surprise there!) At the very least, using the wrong word in a report, proposal, paper or memo can be embarrassing. At its worst, misusing words can damage your credibility and even prove costly at times.
One big problem with language today is the way we speak and the way we write are often two different beasts. Why else would the phrase “for all intents and purposes” have metamorphosed into “for all intensive purposes”? The same is true for “could of” and “should of,” which don’t even make sense if you think about it. But because that’s the way we say it, that’s the way many of us end up writing it on paper, instead of proper “could have” and “should have.”
What follows is a list of words and phrases we commonly misuse. Hopefully, most of them won’t be eye-openers, but a few may surprise you:
Accept- (verb) to agree with, take in, receive. Example: We accept your decision.
Except- (preposition) Apart from. Example: All committee members are present except for Ms. Brown.
Acute- (adjective) Sharp, intense, critical. Example: The company has an acute shortage of skilled workers right now.
Chronic- (adjective) Constant, habitual, long-lasting. Example: She is unable to work because of chronic illness.
Adverse - (adjective) Unfavorable, opposing one’s interest. Example: They found themselves in adverse circumstance.
Averse -(adjective) Antipathy, repugnance, having the feeling of being opposed. Example: She is not averse to increasing her workload.
Affect - (verb) to influence something. Example: How will that affect the bottom line?
Effect - (Noun) the result of (Verb) to cause something to be Example: Her speech had the effect of motivating the listeners.
Allusion - (noun) A casual reference of mentioning something. Example: Was that an allusion to Hemingway?
Illusion - (noun) something that gives a false picture of reality. Example: He believes democracy is an illusion.
All right, Alright
All Right – Fine, OK. Example: It’s all right to leave early.
Alright – Incorrect spelling.
Apprise - (verb) Give notice to. Example: Please apprise me of the situation.
Appraise - (verb) determine the worth of something. Example: The ring was appraised before we purchased it.
Assure, Ensure, Insure
Assure- (verb) To state with confidence, pledge or promise. Example: I assure you the check is in the mail.
Ensure - ( verb) To make certain. Example: Following the instructions ensures you won’t get hurt.
Insure - (verb) to purchase insurance. Example: Insure the package before you send it.
Beside - (preposition) at the side of, next to , near. Example: Take a seat beside me.
Besides – (adverb) Furthermore, in addition to. Example: Besides, several of us will be out of town next week.
Compliment – (Verb) To give praise. Example: I complemented Steve on his speech.
Complement – (Verb) To complete something or match it well. Example: Her skills complement the needs of our department.
Continual – (adjective) Often repeated, very frequent – but occasionally interrupted. Example: They’ve received continual complaints.
Continuous – (adjective) Uninterrupted. Example: We couldn’t hear over his continuous talking.
Disburse – (verb) To Pay, distribute, scatter. Example: They disbursed name tags to everyone attending the meeting.
Disperse – (Verb) To drive off, spread widely, cause to vanish. Example: The throng of fans dispersed into the stands.
Farther – (adverb) At or to a greater distance. Example: We are located farther down the highway.
Further – (adverb) More or additional – but not related to distance. Example: We need to have a further discussion on that.
Fewer – (adjective) Of a small number, only used with countable items. Example: He made fewer mistakes than last time.
Less – (adjective or adverb) To a smaller extent, amount or degree – used with quantities that cannot be individually counted. Example: If they made less noise, we could concentrate.
Imply – (verb) To suggest. Example: What are you implying by that accusation?
Infer – (verb) To deduce from evidence. Example: From the look on your face, I can infer you’re not happy with the decision.
Its – (pronoun) Possessive form if “it”. Example: The machine has lost its ability to scan documents.
It’s – Contraction of “it is.” Example: It’s not a question of right or wrong.
Lose – (verb) Fail to win, misplace. Example: Did you lose your file?
Loose – (adjective) Free from anything that restraints. Example: Since losing weight, his clothes seem loose.
Of – (preposition) Frequently confused with “have” since “could’ve” is pronounced “could of” but “of” cannot be used as a verb.
Have – (verb) Proper verb form for “could have,” “should have” and “would have”.
Principal –(noun) Person who has controlling authority. (adjective) Something essential or important. Example: Let’s talk about the principal reason we’re meeting today.
Principle – (noun) Basic truth, policy or action. Example: It’s important to stick to our principles.
Regardless – (adjective or adverb) In spite of. Example: We are leaving regardless of whether you’re ready.
Irregardless – This is not a word. (Yes, you may find it in your dictionary, but you’re only embarrassing yourself if you use it.)
Than – (preposition) In contrast to. Example: I’d rather speak face-to-face than communicate by e-mail.
Then – (adverb) Next. Example: We met for dinner, then went to a movie.
Their, There, They’re
Their – (pronoun) Belonging to them. Example: Where is their car?
There – (adverb) In a place. Example: Let’s visit there.
They’re – contraction of “they are.” Example: They’re not leaving without saying good-bye, are they?
Whose – (pronoun) Possessive case of “who” or “which.” Example: Whose keys are these?
Who’s – Contraction of “who is.” Example: Who’s going to the game after work?
Your – (pronoun) Belonging to you. Example: Your briefcase is over there.
You’re – Contraction of “you are.” Example: You’re not going to believe this.