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37 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Bad


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As Inigo Montoya famously said, "Why do you keep using that word? I do not think it means what you think it means."
He's right: Using the right word matters, especially when you're trying to make a great impression. (And when are you not trying to make a great impression?)
To make sure that doesn't happen to you, I collected some of the most common incorrectly used words from other posts into one epic post. And then I received more suggestions from helpful readers, so here are some more to add to the list:
Alternate and alternative
Alternate means to do one thing after another, often repeatedly; think taking turns. Alternative means one thing or the other; think making a choice.
If you and I take turns rolling the dice, we're alternating. If you and I decide to play poker instead of craps, we're choosing an alternative way for me to lose all my money. (Because I definitely would.)
Amuse and bemuse
They sound similar, which is probably why I assumed bemused meant something was funny in a wry kind of way. Nope: bemused means confused, puzzled, or perplexed.
So while a troublemaking employee's behavior may rarely amuse you, it can definitely bemuse you...until you take steps to do something about it.
Can and may
When I asked a teacher, "Can I use the restroom," she would always answer, "Certainly you can...but right now you may not." Her point was that can means that something is possible, while may means something is allowed or permissible.
So you can help me...but you may not want to. And I may not like that, but it's probably my fault.
Chronic and severe
If you tell me your warehouse shipping orders late is a "chronic problem," that doesn't mean it's a major issue -- it just means missing ship dates has been a problem for a long time. Chronic means long lasting, frequently recurring, or difficult to eliminate. Chronic in no way implies an issue is severe or even particularly undesirable.
Use severe when you want to describe something that is dreadful, critical, or terrible. Use chronic when you want to describe something that keeps happening.
And use both when whatever keeps happening also results in huge problems.
Coincidence and irony
This one is a little tricky. According to Oxford Dictionaries, irony is "a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects." A coincidence is "a remarkable concurrence of events without apparent causal connection."
A commonly used example of irony is the Titanic: supposedly unsinkable, it sank on its very first voyage. A coincidence would be me running into my high school girlfriend, who I haven't seen in over 30 years (yes, I'm old) three times in the same day. It would be ironic if I had just thought about how I am unlikely to ever see her again, and then did.
(Since she dumped me, another word that would describe that meeting is "painful.")
So use, "Wow, that's ironic," if you get a call from a prominent VC the day after you take out a bank loan to fund your startup, and say, "Wow, what a crazy coincidence," if, out of the blue, three VCs call you tomorrow to ask for a meeting.
i.e., a.k.a., and e.g.
First the definitions: i.e. stands for "that is" and is usually followed by further explanation; a.k.a. stands for "also known as" and is followed by an alias (or looser description); and e.g. stands for "for example" and is usually followed by a list of notable examples.
Many people find the use of those abbreviations to be somewhat pretentious, so feel free to skip them and just say what you mean. "Marcus Lemons, also known as 'The Profit,' overhauled that company's sales strategy, operations, distribution network, management team...in other words, he totally turned it around."
Illusion, allusion, and elusion
A magician is a master of illusion--her talent makes us wrongly perceive or interpret what we see. An illusion can also be a false belief, but it's often preceded by a negative, as in "I am under no illusions regarding how pedantic this post might seem."
An allusion is an indirect reference: "I alluded to how pedantic I am, but I never came right out and said it."
And elusion refers to escaping or avoiding: "Somehow I managed to elude seeming pedantic."
That means David Blaine is a master of illusion, Shakespeare was a master of allusion, and unfortunately I am not skilled at the elusion of appearing to be a pedant.
Loathe and loath
If you use either of these, it's probably loathe, if only because we've all been disgusted or repelled at some point. Of course we've all been unwilling or reluctant as well, but we probably didn't use loath to describe our feelings.
So if you loathe your father-in-law's chili, you should probably be loath to express that opinion...unless you're cool with being on the receiving end of a look of loathing from your spouse.
Many and plethora
I used to mess this one up all the time. I might say, "I have a plethora of projects to choose from," but since plethora means an excessive amount...clearly that's incorrect, since no one has too many projects to choose from.
So if you go to a networking event and the 70 business cards you collect won't fit in your pocket, 70 might in fact be a plethora...but if the 70 cards will fit in your briefcase, you just have a lot. (And you have a lot of potential connections to follow up with later.)
Momentary and momentarily
Momentary means something happens for a brief period time: "I had a momentary lapse of reason when I agreed to play poker with you."
Momentarily means something will happen in a brief period of time: "Mr. Baker just pulled in, so he will be able to see you momentarily."
And if I ran into that old girlfriend, our meeting would definitely be momentary.
Nauseous and nauseated
This one wins the "I never would have thought that" award. Nauseated means feeling sick; if your stomach is upset you feel nauseated. Nauseous means causing feelings of nausea; the smell of rancid meat is nauseous.
If you get this one wrong, don't feel bad: No health care professional has ever asked me if I felt nauseated. And I've never said I feel nauseated. (Until now.)
Past and pass
Past refers to events that have taken place earlier in time. Pass refers to an action, like movement or completion. You pass a test, although you might not be able to get past the fact you failed.
Where it gets tricky is when past is used as an adverb. Saying you walked past my office is correct, because "walked" is the verb. If you go by my office on the way to the lunch room then you passed it...unless of course you hurried past it.
So even though you might sometimes worry that time has passed you by, never forget that while you can't change your past, you can always change your future.
Peruse and browse
You can't spend a couple seconds perusing a menu and then make a snap decision. Peruse doesn't mean to skim or read casually; peruse means to examine carefully or at length.
If you're looking casually or leisurely or superficially, you're browsing. When you dive deep into the details and consider them thoughtfully, then you're perusing.
So make sure you always peruse a contract before you sign.
Regretful and Regrettable
Regretful means to feel or show regret; if I am rude to you, I definitely should feel regretful. Regrettable refers to an action or event that is unfortunate or undesirable.
If I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, I'm regretful. When I hurt your feelings, my actions were regrettable.
If you get confused, feel free to default to regret. "I regret saying the things I did" works, and so does "I regret treating you the way I did that day."
Sight, site, and cite
These are easy. A sight is something you see. A site is a place or location (granted that you can see, but a place nonetheless.) And when you cite, you quote someone or you list him or her as a source.
So seeing a new order in your inbox is a welcome sight, choosing a location for your business means you've found the perfect site, and referring to a passage from Outliers to support your own reasoning means you decided to cite Malcolm Gladwell as a source of inspiration.
Stationary and stationery
You write on stationery. You print business stationery, like letterhead and envelopes.

But that box of envelopes is only stationary if it's not moving--and even if it is, it's still stationery.
Then and than

Then refers in some way to time. "Let's close this deal, and then we'll celebrate!" Since the celebration comes after the sale, then is correct.
Then is also often used with if. Think in terms of if-then statements: "If we don't get to the office on time, then we won't be able to close the deal today."
Than involves a comparison. "Landing Customer A will result in higher revenue than landing Customer B" or "Our sales team is more committed to building customer relationships than the competition."
Or: Hopefully, you now know how to use a few more words correctly than you did.