20 More Incorrectly Used Words
While there are hundreds of incorrectly used words, I’ve picked words commonly used in business settings.
“We anticipate earnings will increase by $1 per share.”
No you don’t. To anticipate means to look ahead and
prepare. So you can anticipate increased sales, but only if you are
also making preparations to handle that increase in sales; for example,
“We added staffing in anticipation of increased sales.”
If you’re estimating or wishful guessing, use estimate or expect instead. Or, if you live where I live, use “reckon.” It’s good enough for Clint.
appears in many contracts. An arbitrator is like a judge; she hears
evidence, reviews documents, etc, and then makes a decision. That’s
different from mediate: a mediator
doesn’t make decisions but tries to help two opposing parties work out
their differences and reach a compromise or settlement.
So if you agree to enter mediation
in the event of a dispute, you and the other party will try to hash out
your problem the help of a neutral party. And if you can’t reach an
agreement that usually means your next step will be to go to court.
If you agree to arbitration
a neutral party will make a decision that you will have to live with.
Normally there are no next steps. (Except maybe disappointment.)
The problem with behalf isn’t the word itself; it’s the word that comes before.
A person who acts on your behalf is acting as a kind of representative, like a lawyer or accountant or agent. On behalf of denotes a formal or professional relationship. A person who acts in your behalf is acting as a supporter or friend, so the relationship is assumed to be less formal.
“The customer needed an answer so Jenny spoke
on your behalf,” means that Jenny stood in for you and (hopefully)
represented your position. “The customer was upset with how you treated
her and Jenny spoke in your behalf,” means Jenny took up for you and
your clearly deficient customer service skills.
A bottleneck is a point of constraint or
limitation, like a machine in an assembly line that runs slower than the
That means a bottleneck can’t grow. A
bottleneck can’t get bigger. A bottleneck can’t expand. A bottleneck can
cripple productivity, but it can’t spread to overwhelm your shop floor.
Can is used to indicate what is possible. May is used to indicate what is permissible. I can offer kickbacks to certain vendors, but unless I’m ethically challenged I may not.
Telling your staff, “You can not offer refunds without authorization,” sounds great but is incorrect. They certainly can even though they shouldn’t.
Many people use collusion
as a fancy way to imply cooperation or collaboration. Collusion does
mean to cooperate or work together–but towards a result that is
deceitful, fraudulent, or even illegal.
That’s why you probably never want to refer to yourself as colluding in, well, anything.
A machine that doesn’t work properly is defective.
A process that doesn’t achieve a desired result is defective. When a
machine doesn’t work properly because it’s missing a key component, it’s
deficient, just like a process with a gap is deficient.
So feel free to say, “His skills are
deficient,” when an employee is lacking specific skills (because you’re
focusing on the missing skill and not the employee), but leave defective
to discussions of inanimate objects.
Even if an employee doesn’t work properly, in context it sounds pretty harsh.
Germane is the same as relevant. Each shows that something applies.
But don’t mistake germane (or relevant) with
material. A material point helps make a position or argument complete;
it’s essential. A point germane to the discussion may be interesting,
and even worth saying… but it’s not essential.
Think of it this way. In meetings we often get
bored when people raise germane points/ they’re (mildly) interesting
but often unnecessary. We listen when people raise material
points–because those points matter.
This word gets tossed in to indicate
frequency: “Invariably, Johnny misses deadlines,” is only correct if
Johnny always, always, always misses deadlines, because invariably means
in every case or occasion.
Unless Johnny messes up each and every time,
without fail, use frequently, or usually, or even almost always. And
then think about his long-term employment status.
Here’s a word that appears in many dictionaries simply because it’s used so often.
is used to mean without regard to or without respect to… which is what
regardless means. In theory the “ir” part, which typically means “not,”
joined up with “regardless,” which means without regard to, makes
irregardless mean “not without regard to,” or more simply, “with regard
Which is clearly not what you mean.
So save yourself one syllable or two keystrokes and just say “regardless.”
Don’t like what people say about you?
Like slander, libel
refers to making a false statement that is harmful to a person’s
reputation. The difference lies in how that statement is expressed:
slanderous remarks are spoken while libelous remarks are written and
published (which means defamatory tweets could be considered libelous,
Keep in mind what makes a statement libelous
or slanderous is its inaccuracy, not its harshness. No matter how nasty a
tweet, if it’s factually correct it cannot. Truth is an absolute
defense to defamation–you might wish a customer hadn’t said something
derogatory about your business, but if what that customer said is true…
you have no legal recourse.
is frequently used (all too often by teenagers I know) to add emphasis.
The problem is literally means “actually, without exaggeration,” so,
“That customer was literally foaming at the mouth,” cannot be true
without the involvement of rabies or inaccurately applied Scrubbing Bubbles.
The only time using literally makes sense is
when you need to indicate what is normally a figurative expression is,
this time, truly the case. Saying, “He literally died when he saw the
invoice,” only works if the customer did, in fact, pass away moments
after seeing the bill.
is another emphasis word used to sound authoritative and awesome: “The
majority of our customers are satisfied with our service,” makes it
sound like you’re doing great, right? Nope–since majority is defined as
“the greater number,” all you have said is that 51% of your customers
are satisfied… which means 49% are not so thrilled.
Majority can get you in trouble when accuracy
is really important. “The majority of our investors support our plans to
pivot,” sounds like almost all of them are behind you… when in fact
nearly half might not be. “The majority of our shipments deliver on
time,” sounds like you’re the king of meeting deadlines… when in fact
you could be missing delivery dates on what a prospective customer would
find to be a depressingly regular basis.
Here’s a better approach. Use statistics or
facts. Or just say “most” or “nearly all.” Then you won’t have to worry
about giving the wrong impression.
Thank advertisers for the over-use and
frequent redundancy of this word. “Acme Inc. announces breakthrough new
product.” By definition aren’t all breakthroughs new? “Acme Inc. sets
new sales records.” By definition aren’t all records new? “Acme Inc.
creates new social media sharing platform.” By definition aren’t all
“New” might sound impressive, but since it can
also sound like hyperbolic advertising copy, it may cause readers to
tune out what is really important about your message.
Obsolete means no longer produced, used, or
needed. But since lots of things are out of date but still usable–think
flip phones–they are obsolescent, not obsolete. Obsolete is the end
point; obsolescent is the journey towards.
The difference in percent and percentage point
could leave you feeling cheated. Say you’re negotiating a loan with a
listed interest rate of 6% and the lender says he’ll reduce the rate by
1%. Strictly speaking that means he’ll reduce the interest by 1% of 6%,
or .06%. That means your new interest rate is 5.94%. Yippee.
Percent refers to a relative increase or
reduction, while percentage point refers to the actual change in rate.
If you want a 5% loan instead of a 6% loan, you’re hoping for a
reduction of 1 percentage point.
Most of the time the difference isn’t a big
deal. If you see a new report saying interest rates rose 1%, you can
safely assume it means 1 percentage point. But if you’re signing a
contract or agreement… make sure you know the difference in meaning–and
approve of the difference.
Here’s the king of redundant words, often used to add a little extra oomph: “We successfullylaunched our new product.” Wait: in order to have launched, you have to have beensuccessful. (Otherwise you unsuccessfully launched.)
If you create, or develop, or implement, just say you did. We know you were successful. Otherwise you wouldn’t tell us.
another word used redundantly to add emphasis. “We were totally
surprised by last month’s sales,” sounds more significant than, “We were
surprised by last month’s sales,” but a surprise is either unexpected
or it’s not. (I suppose you could be a little surprised, but that’s like
being a little pregnant.)
The same is true when total is used to refer
to a number. Why say, “A total of 32 customers purchased extended
warranties,” when, “32 customers purchased extended warranties,” will
And one last point: make sure you get the verb tense right. “A total of six months was
spent developing the app,” is wrong because “a total of” refers to all
six months, which is plural, which requires “were.” (As in, “A total of
six months were spent developing the app.”)
If you refer to “the total of,” use “was,” as
in, “The total of employee benefit costs was $10 million last year,”
because in that case you are referring to the actual total and not all
the different costs that make up the total.
In short: The total of gets a “was.” A total of gets a “were.”
Or you could just say, “Employee benefits cost $10 million last year.” Doesn’t sound as dramatic, but does sound better.
When you sign a waiver you give up the right to make a claim. When you waver you aren’t signing it yet because you’re hesitant.
So hey, feel free to waver to sign that waiver. Your instincts just might be correct.