Words used incorrectly in English that can make you look bad

Words used incorrectly in English can really make you look bad. While I like to think I know a little about business writing, I often fall into a few word traps. For example, « who » and « whom. » I rarely use « whom » when I should. Even when spell check suggests « whom, » I think it sounds pretentious. So I don’t use it. 

And I’m sure some people then think, « What a bozo. »

And that’s a problem, because just like that one misspelled word that gets a resumé tossed into the « nope » pile, words used incorrectly in the English language can negatively impact your entire message.

Fair or unfair, it happens.

So let’s make sure it doesn’t:

Adverse and averse

Our first pair of words used incorrectly are adverse and averse. Adverse means harmful or unfavorable; « Adverse market conditions caused the IPO to be poorly subscribed. » Averse means dislike or opposition; « I was averse to paying $18 a share for a company that generates no revenue. »

But you can feel free to have an aversion to adverse conditions.

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, or can effect changes by implementing them. Use effect if you’re making it happen, and affect if you’re having an impact on something someone else is trying to make happen.

As for nouns, effect is almost always correct; « Once he was fired he was given twenty minutes to gather his personal effects. » Affect refers to emotional states so unless you’re a psychologist, you’re probably not using it.

Compliment and complement

Compliment is to say something nice. Complement is to add to, enhance, improve, complete, or bring close to perfection. So, I can compliment your staff and their service, but if you have no current openings you have a full complement of staff. And your new app may complement your website.

For which I may decide to compliment you.

Criteria and criterion

« We made the decision based on one overriding criteria, » sounds pretty impressive but is wrong.

Remember: one criterion, two or more criteria. Although you could always use « reason » or « factors » and not worry about getting it wrong.

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 « discreetion » to work through sensitive issues; you exercise discretion…


Read more | inc.com/jeff-haden

Photo credit | Pencils on blue by bjacks14 on Flickr

Posted on août 3, 2014 in English language

Share the Story

About the Author

Back to Top