I don’t know how to tell you this, but that word you just proudly dropped into an email or resume, it doesn’t mean what you think it does.
I asked professional writers and miscellaneous word nerds to share their picks for words people mangle most often. In no particular order, here are some words you might be using incorrectly or expressions you should scrub from your writing or conversations.
I often receive pitches discussing someone amazing with fabulous qualities. Then the person pitching describes Ms. Amazing as being notorious or infamous. Both of these words mean famous … for a bad reason.
Though the word means greatly shamed, the Latin root of mortified is mort, the word for death, with the idea being that if you’re mortified, you’re so deeply ashamed, that you might just want to sink into a hole in the ground and die. It doesn’t mean angry, upset or annoyed. It really doesn’t.
Sometimes people want to use a fancier version of a word they know. Sometimes they use it incorrectly. This word doesn’t mean it’s even better than the ultimate version; it means that it’s the second to the last.
Peak or peek in place of pique
If you pique my interest you’ve aroused my curiosity and desire to know more.
It’s true that this one inspired the subsequent highly irritating humblebrag, but if you’re humbled, you’re usually lowered in status, dignity or importance. Those circumstances don’t generally inspire a thank you speech or tweet worthy of the Academy Awards.
As in “I drug myself home after a night of heavy drinking.” This one is a bit tough since it could be a regional thing, but it’s wrong. You dragged yourself home. Up next, hair of the dog!
Overwhelm (as a noun)
This one has peaked in popularity in recent years with popular bloggers writing about being in overwhelm. The truth is though, that using overwhelm as a noun dates back to 1596 according to the Oxford dictionary. That doesn’t mean it should be part of your daily conversation unless used mostly ironically. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review effectively explains and then gently pokes fun at the trend and suggests the less awkward overload instead. Or you could just say that you’re overwhelmed.
They aren’t. Please stop. The most egregious use of this was when someone pitched me something about (trigger warning ahead) the “Kardashian Klan.” When I tried to offer a gentle explanation as to why she must never again use a word so steeped in racism and hatred to describe the most overexposed family in the world, she got defensive.
Literally doesn’t mean like, akin to, or similar. It literally means literally. So, for instance, if I say the Kardashians are literally the most overexposed family in the world, I speak the truth on several levels. If, however, I said the Kardashians are literally the most annoying family in the world, it could be up for interpretation since there could theoretically be more annoying families in the world. Doubtful, but possible. Worth noting- Rachael Ray was invoked for her overuse of the word literally. So much so that one intrepid soul had her children count the use of literally in a single segment (it was 12 or 13 times).
In lieu of
Some people ask for charity donations in lieu of birthday gifts, which means they’re asking people to substitute one for the other. For some reason, there are people who think it means “in light of.” It doesn’t.
I could care less
If you could care less, you would care less, that means there’s still a tiny part of you that cares. The correct expression is “I couldn’t care less,” thereby expressing the ultimate in disdain.
Flush out an idea
You flush out toxins. When you have a good idea, you flesh out the wireframe and build on it.
Out of pocket
A Facebook friend explains “I always knew this to mean ‘covering my own expenses, out of personal funds’ but some people seem to insist it means ‘working but away from the office?’ or just ‘away from the office?’ ” Hint: It doesn’t. Out of pocket usually refers to expenses you end up covering. Out of office means out of office.
Could of, should of, would of
Professional writer Melanie expresses distaste for those using these “instead of “have instead of could have, should have, would have.”
No worries, no problem
You’re welcome works just fine!
Also, keep an eye out for
- “I’m loosing out” instead of “I’m losing out.”
- “Less than X items” instead of “Fewer than.”
Dictionaries are your friend, so are thesauri; use them often and copiously! Also, pro tip: If you ever make it to the White House, consider hiring a ghostwriter or at least an editor to check your tweets for spelling, grammar and proper or appropriate word usage.
P.S. Blame spellcheck for any typos; I had the darndest time getting spellcheck to leave in all the intentional errors.
Thank you: Anne I., Ray D., Melanie V., Linda M., Alice K.M., Bev B., Craig G., Paula, Steven Y. and everyone who (crankily) weighed in!