27 September 2023

Wordly wise: Why you should think before using that unfamiliar word

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Travis Bradberry says misused words can make us look stupid and in crucial situations can influence our job prospects and careers.

We’re all tempted to use words that we’re not too familiar with.

We throw them around in meetings, e-mails and important documents, and they land, like fingernails across a chalkboard, on everyone who has to hear or read them.

No matter how talented you are or what you’ve accomplished, using words incorrectly can cast you in a negative light.

You may not think it’s a big deal, but if your language is driving people up the wall you need to do something about it.

It’s the words that we think we’re using correctly that wreak the most havoc, because we don’t even realise how poorly we’re coming across.

We’re all guilty of this from time to time, myself included.

When I write, I hire an editor to review my articles before I post them online.

It’s bad enough to have a roomful of people witness your blunder and something else entirely to stumble in front of 100,000.

We can all benefit from opportunities to minimise our mistakes.

Often, it’s the words we perceive as being more ‘correct’ or sophisticated that catch us by surprise when they don’t really mean what we think they do.

These words have a tendency to make even really smart people stumble.

Have a look to see which of these commonly confused words throw you off.

Accept vs. Except:

These two words sound similar but have very different meanings.

Accept means to receive something willingly: “His mum accepted his explanation”.

Except signifies exclusion: “I can attend every meeting except the one next week.”

To help you remember, note that both except and exclusion begin with ex.

Affect vs. Effect:

To make these words even more confusing than they already are, both can be used as either a noun or a verb.

Let’s start with the verbs. Affect means to influence something or someone; effect means to accomplish something.

“Your job was affected by the organisational restructuring”, but: “These changes will be effected on Monday.”

As a noun, an effect is the result of something: “The sunny weather had a huge effect on sales.”

It’s almost always the right choice because the noun affect refers to an emotional state and is rarely used outside of psychological circles.

Lie vs. 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.

Bring vs. Take:

Bring and take both describe transporting something or someone from one place to another.

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.”

If the movement is toward you, use bring; if the movement is away from you, use take.

Ironic vs. 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.

  1. 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.

Imply vs. 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 vs. Nauseated:

Nauseous has been misused so often that the incorrect usage is accepted in some circles.

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 vs. Compose:

These are two of the most commonly misused words in the English language.

Comprise means to include; compose means to make up.

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 vs. 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.”

Fewer vs. 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.”

English grammar can be tricky, and, a lot of times, the words that sound right are actually wrong.

With words such as those listed above, you just have to memorise the rules so that when you are about to use them, you’ll know for certain that you’ve written or said the right one.

What other words do you or people you know have trouble with?

*Travis Bradberry is the co-founder of TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests, emotional intelligence training, and emotional intelligence certification. He can be contacted at TalentSmart.com.

This article first appeared on the TalentSmart website.

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