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Commonly Confused Business Words and Phrases

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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 thatHopefully, 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.

Related Straight North Posts:

Business Grammar Tips from the Chicago Manual of Style
4 Errors Spell-Check Won’t Find
Spell Check Your Customer List


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45 Responses to Commonly Confused Business Words and Phrases

  1. Karen, Darn good question! I checked and discovered that “paid” is the past tense of “pay”. “Payed” is the past tense in the sense of letting out a line or cable by slackening.
    Perhaps your boating experience came into play on that one?

    Vicky, I thought this list might be helpful for formal or business writing, where precision can be extremely important. In some of these examples, using the wrong word is not only ungrammatical, it changes the meaning of the sentence.

  2. Whoa, great guide that you have there! For the sentence “In lieu of cash, Jane payed for dinner with a credit card,” should it be “paid” instead? If not, what’s the rule there?

  3. Brad this is a great list that I will be coming back to visit. Language seems to be getting less formal, but then good grammar is always needed.

    Vicky H

  4. Boating experience-nah. It’s because I have so much experience making boat/jet ski payments. :)

  5. Jackie, My parents passed along their passion for words to me. It was nice of them! We’ve used “medal” as a verb here in the States for some time, and the word is listed in the dictionary as a verb. It would be fascinating to compare English English with American English. There must be thousands of subtle differences. I noticed researching the post that “loan” is not used as a verb in England. Here, we use “lend” and “loan” interchangeably.

  6. This is great Brad – I have a passion for using the right words. I keep my dictionary beside me at all times to check. I love the clarity of your list. Thank you .
    Loads and loads of others come to mind but there has been great debate here in the UK arising from the Olympics. Athletes were expected to “medal” – turning medal into a verb. That was becoming accepted – but the line was drawn here in the UK about to podium becoming a verb ( which – come to think of it – means the same thing surely) – and guess who was getting the blame for introducing it to the “Olympic” language – yup our American friends.
    Maybe they can be used that way – what do you think. Maybe if this only comes up every 4 years we can be excused for getting it wrong!.
    I love the way that english words are used differently ( or put together differently sometimes ) in other english speaking parts of the world.

  7. This post brought back childhood memories – we had to actually learn most of these as part of our formal English education (not my mother tongue). An interesting one:

    defy, deify: What do you say of a boy who defies his father only to deify his grandfather?!

  8. We had learnt back at school that unchristian meant devoid of love, compassion, forgiveness etc. while non-christian meant not belonging to Christianity (as a religious faith)…but not necessarily unchristian. Somewhere in the net, I found both of these used interchangeably. What is correct?

  9. Jeevanjyoti, You’ve learned English well! Another interesting question … My understanding is as follows. Nonchristian is a person who does not believe in Christ. Unchristian can mean either a person not of the Christian faith, or (a person, idea, or law) not consistent with the spirit, values, and principles of the Christian faith. Nonchristian, therefore, has a much narrower meaning. There are Christians who lead unchristian lives, and there are nonchristians who lead Christian lives. Does that help?

  10. Here’s one I’d add to the list because I see it wrong so often.
    Ensure/insure: Insure is only correct if you’re talking about insurance! Otherwise, if you’re “making sure” of something, it’s ensure.

  11. Brad,

    Congratulations on the production of such a comprehensive list – I guess it must have taken a considerable amount of time and effort to research and compile. Well done.

    Even though some language conventions are being applied in a less strict fashion these days, correct grammar usage is still a critical aspect of written communication in the modern world. You just never know when an important recipient of your written material may be very particular about grammatical correctness.



  12. Thanks, Brad, school was right…one need not necessarily be a Christian to lead a Christian life!

  13. Hi soulmagnet75, ensure/insure is a perfect addition. Very easy to confuse those. Andrew, you make a good point. Grammar is like your wardrobe. You can’t go wrong overdressing, but you can go wrong under dressing.

  14. Wow Brad, that must have taken you ages to put together. It’s a brilliant guide. I must confess, I used to have a bad habit of writing alot, instead of a lot. I hope I haven’t been slipping lately.

  15. You’re a brave man to compile such a list! I’d have spent forever checking the dictionary first.

    Another addition might be compliment / complement: I’d like to compliment you on this post, but suggest that this additional pair of words would complement your list

    Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend :-)


  16. Brad, what a great list and nicely presented! Your explanations were well written and on target. This is a great list to print out for future reference. Thanks Brad!

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  18. Karen, Joanna, Cath, This post did take lots of time to put together, but I learned/relearned many things in the process. Hope it helps you. Compliment/complement definitely belongs on the list. How did I miss it? Keep those ideas coming!

  19. Robert, Nicely composed comment! Way to hone those skills. :)

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..Do They Recognize You? – Guest Post by Drew McLellan

  20. Between you and me, I think I’ll just accept these lessons in the spirit they are given. I figuratively turned somersaults as I literally checked each one off. Well, at least I’m not notoriously guilty of too many redundancies, if you get my meanin’. :-)

    (Whew! Just about busted a brain cell trying to write that!)

  21. No wonder you write so well, Brad! Thanks for sharing all these important principles with us! This post is definitely one to bookmark!

  22. Jeanne, I’ll bet you could have written this post in half the time it took me. Nice use of “principles” – and HTML! :)

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..10 Ways To Free Your Business Writing, by Joanna Young

  23. I wouldn’t be so sure about that if I were you, Brad! I’m definitely not known for being the world’s fastest writer, as stuck on the details as I tend to be! (Perhaps we both have the same “problem”?) ;-)

  24. Jagannath Chakraborty

    It is really nice to learn this. It reminds me of my school days. I remember about sell and cell. To differentiate the meaning I wrote – He sells watches and the jailor watches the cell.

  25. it is very useful to all and one…..and I learnt from…….this site…thank you

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  28. This is a really useful list, something that I will refer to when I am writing business articles.

    It is so easy to fall into the trap of bad grammar and spelling, but even more so than that it is easy to get lazy, really comprehensive guide.

  29. Hi Danielle, Glad you can make use of this list. It was a learning experience putting it together!

  30. Hi Rick, First of all, thanks for taking the time to read and even comment on these JJL linked posts – that’s very thoughtful. Your suggestion is excellent – I’m keeping a list for a future update and will definitely add this one.

  31. Jeanne, thanks for the wise counsel! It’s now on my list.

  32. Brad, this is a wonderful list and includes some I end up researching over and over.

    How about adding apprise/appraise? Maybe it was because I worked for a company which was involved in real estate, but I saw these two mixed up many times in business communications.

    This post of yours is one I will keep handy, Brad!

  33. Just thought of another pair that should be on the list: council, counsel. He joined the City Council. Her mentor gave her counsel.

  34. Nanda Nepal

    It’s a wonderful list of confused words useful for all English learners .Thanks a lot for it.

  35. Pingback: New Additions to My Commonly Confused Words List

  36. Brad, congratulations for an excellent post and useful information.

    I would like to add “few” and “couple” on the list.

  37. Hi Lori, Great idea! I’ll add it on my next update.

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  39. I’m keeping this list to pick from for my blog’s Wordbite series, it’s the largest I’ve seen for this category of words in a while. Thanks, Brad!

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  41. Did you publish an updated list? I like many of the suggestions in the comments.

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