The English language is full of quirks, traps, and pitfalls. A list of tricky words and phrases could run a mile long. The ones I’ve selected occur frequently in “real life” business writing. Any additions? I’ve tried to catch the biggies, but I’m sure I’ve missed more than a few.
A lot, alot. There is no such word as alot.
A while, awhile. A while is an indeterminate length of time. Awhile means “for a while.” The meeting starts in a while. The meeting lasted awhile.
Accept, except. I accept your proposal, except for the fourth clause.
Adverse, averse. I am averse to (against) the adverse (detrimental) effects of the new compensation plan.
Affect, effect. In the sense most common in business, affect is a verb — to change or influence. Effect is a noun — an outcome, result, or condition. High energy costs adversely affect profits. High energy costs have a negative effect on profits.
Among, between. Between applies to a group of two: among applies to a group of three or more: Between the two of us, but among the three of us.
Anxious, eager. Anxious suggests apprehension, anxiety. Eager suggests excitement, joyful expectation.
Appraise, apprise. To appraise is to set a price or value on something. To apprise is to notify or brief someone (of a situation).
Begging the question. A statement that assumes the point one is trying to prove — This product is incompetently designed because their R&D department is incompetent. Begging the question does not mean raising the question.
Better, best. You can have the better of two options, and the best of three or more options. What you can’t have is the best of two options.
Between, among. Strictly speaking, between applies to two people or things; among applies to three or more people or things. Between the two candidates, Jane is better qualified. Among the three candidates, Jane is best qualified.
Between you and I. Never. This is a prepositional phrase, so it’s always between you and me. (Me is the object of the preposition.) Biannually. Occurring twice a year. (Something occurring every other year is biennial.)
Bimonthly. Use with care. Strangely, this word describes something occurring either twice a month or every two months.
Borrow, lend. You borrow from someone; you lend to someone.
Capital, capitol. Capital refers to money, property, and other sources of wealth, AND a city that serves as the seat of government. Capitol refers to the government buildings themselves. Private investors from the capital city raised capital to repair the capitol grounds.
Compare to, compare with. When you show how two apparently different things are similar, you compare to. When you show how two apparently similar things are different, you compare with. Dying is easy compared to giving a speech. Public education doesn’t compare with home schooling.
Compose, comprise. A whole is composed of parts; parts comprise a whole. The meeting is composed of three one-hour sessions. Three one-hour sessions comprise the meeting.
Continual, continuous. Continual means ongoing, frequently recurring. Continuous means without interruption. The meeting was continually interrupted by questions. The meeting ran continuously for 8 hours.
Consul, council, counsel. A consul is a governmental official who resides in a foreign country. A council is an administrative group or assembly. To counsel is to give advice. Counsel can also be a noun when referring to a legal advisor.
Convince, persuade. When you convince, you change someone’s way of thinking. When you persuade, you motivate someone to act. He convinced me that I was negligent. He persuaded me to settle out of court. (Note — it’s always convince of/convinced that, and persuaded to.)
Different from, different than. Different from is universally accepted. Stick with it.
Discreet, discrete. Discreet means prudent, diplomatic. Discrete means separate and distinct.
Disinterested, uninterested. Disinterested means impartial, unbiased. Uninterested means not interested in, apathetic. If you were standing trial, you’d want a disinterested judge, not an uninterested one.
Due to, because of. Here’s an easy way to remember which phrase to use. If the phrase can be replaced by “caused by”, use due to. If the phrase can be replaced by “as a result of”, use because of. Poor quarterly results were due to rising energy costs. Quarterly earnings decreased because of rising energy costs.
e.g. and i.e. e.g. means “for example”. i.e. means “that is to say.”
Elder, eldest. Jane is the elder daughter (of the two). Jane is the eldest daughter (of the three).
Ensure, insure. To ensure is to make certain. To insure is to protect against loss, especially financial loss.
Euphemisms. Avoid euphemisms that sugarcoat disagreeable ideas or actions. They tend to annoy people. Examples — Negative growth for loss, vendor rationalization for “we’re dropping you as a supplier,” downsizing or streamlining for “you’re fired,” challenge or pain point for problem, pre-owned for used.
Farther, further. Use farther when referring to measurable or spacial distances. Use further for abstract distances. John is further ahead of Jane in his studies. Jane lives farther from Chicago than John.
Fewer, less. Use fewer when referring to a specific or measurable number. Use less when referring to an abstract or unmeasurable amount. He owns fewer stocks and has less money than than his business partner.
First, firstly. Purists object to “firstly, secondly, etc.” When enumerating points, it is safer to use “first, second, third, etc.” construction.
Flammable, inflammable. They mean the same thing — easily capable of bursting into flames.
Former, latter. Former is the first of two; latter is the second of two. “Idleness and pride tax with a heavier hand than kings and parliaments. If we can get rid of the former, we may easily bear the latter.” — Benjamin Franklin.
Fortuitous, fortunate. Strictly speaking, fortuitous means happening by accident, having either positive or negative consequences. The word is commonly used as a synonym for fortunate, but this usage should be avoided in formal writing.
His, her, their. Don’t mix singular nouns with the plural pronoun their. Each client has his own file and Each client has his or her own file are correct. Each client has their own file is incorrect.
Hopefully. The word means in a hopeful manner — John submitted his job application hopefully. Using the word as a substitute for I hope that — Hopefully, John will get the job — is frowned upon by grammarians, but widely used nonetheless. Avoid this word in formal writing.
If and when. Avoid this phrase. Its meaning is unclear even to experts.
Imply, infer. The speaker implies, the listener infers. During a staff meeting, John implied that he had lost the ABC account. Jane inferred from John’s comments that he had lost the ABC account.
In lieu of means in place of, not in light of. In lieu of cash, Jane payed for dinner with a credit card.
Internet, Web. Not synonymous. The Internet is a vast network of networked computers, of which the World Wide Web is one part. People access information on the Web by using browsers to access Web pages. The Internet contains other types of networks; for instance, email.
Irregardless. Not a word. It’s regardless.
Its, it’s. Its is a possessive pronoun; it’s is a contraction for it is. It’s amazing how quickly its sales ramped up.
Lend, loan. In the U.S., to loan or to lend is accepted usage. In Great Britain, to lend is preferred.
Less, fewer. If you can count ‘em, use fewer. John made fewer sales than Jane in October. John has less sales experience than Jane.
Literally, figuratively. A literal statement is actually, physically true. A figurative statement is symbolically, metaphorically true. Jane literally fell out of her chair and bruised her ankle. Jane figuratively fell out her chair when she heard John’s surprising comments.
May, might. Something that may happen is more likely than something that might happen. You may be wondering how to increase your sales. You might be wondering how to sell Canadian bacon.
Me, myself. Unless you’ve already used I in the sentence, use me. This site design doesn’t appeal to me. I myself don’t care for the layout of this Web page.
More important, more importantly. Once upon a time, more importantly was not allowed. Today, both phrases are acceptable.
More than, over. If you’re talking countable numbers, more than is preferred by some. Mr. Jones has more than ten years experience in the financial services industry. However, there are no hard and fast rules, so trust your ear.
Moot point. A point that is open to debate, questionable.
Most unique. Not to be used. Something is either unique or it isn’t.
Neither is, neither are. Neither is is correct.
None is, none are. None is is technically correct, but this formality is melting away because “none are” often sounds better to the ear.
Notorious. NOT a synonym for being accomplished, virtuous, or highly esteemed. A notorious organization or individual is one that is famous for doing or being evil.
People that, people who. Generally, who follows people and that follows things: People who sell insurance; policies that cover theft. However, people that is acceptable — just stick with one or the other.
Practicable, practical. Practicable means feasible; practical means common sensical, realistic rather than theoretical.
Precede, proceed. Precede means to come before. Proceed means to go forward or move along.
Prescribe, proscribe. Opposite meanings. Prescribe means to order, as in a rule, law, or medical prescription. Proscribe means to prohibit, ban, or condemn.
Principal, principle. A high school has a principal. Ms. Jennings is a principal of ABC Company. The principal reason for accepting the proposal was the vendor’s experience. Ms. Jennings is a woman of principle. The training program explained important business principles.
Redundancies. Unnecessary repetition should always be avoided, but has a way of creeping into business phrasing. Examples — ATM machine, PIN number, UPC code, VIN number, absolutely sure, brief summary, completely eliminate, current status, end result, firm decision, foreign imports, free gift, future goals, future planning, greater metropolitan area, internal staff, major breakthrough, major disaster, mutual cooperation, new discovery, new innovation, old adage, past experience, past history, same exact, specific details, unexpected surprise.
Tertiary. As applied to business, tertiary refers to the service sector of the economy — distribution, transportation, financial services, etc.
Than I, than me. Fill in the missing pieces of the sentence to determine which phrase to use. Ms. Jennings likes Jane better than she likes me. Ms. Jennings likes Jane better than I like Jane. That, which. If the phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence, use that. Otherwise, use which. The order that ABC Company placed was filled yesterday. ABC’s order, which was placed yesterday, will be filled today.
Who, that. Use who when referring to people; that when referring to anything else.
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