Saturday, August 21, 2010

#145 - Let's clear up common word confusion

English is a funny language. There are different words that mean the same thing, single words that have different meanings, and words that are highly prone to mispronunciation, such as "nook-you-ler" when it's really "nook-lee-er," and "Feb-you-erry" instead of "Feb-roo-erry."

WordsThen there are the homonyms — words that sound alike, are often (mistakenly) used interchangeably, but don't mean the same thing. And when you use the wrong words online, in a business letter, an email, a status update or your homework assignment, you still look foolish. To really make things difficult, your spell-checker simply can't bail you out because it doesn't recognize these types of mistakes. The folks over at have put together some guidelines you might find useful.

Take a minute right now to review five often confusing word pairs, their meanings, and how to use them properly in everything you write. Just because mass communication is moving toward a quick-paced, casual writing style (commonly associated with social media) doesn't mean grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax don't matter. They are as important as ever!

What you write and how you write within new mediums and business communication represents YOU - to the world, your colleagues and your friends. Remember, it never hurts to refresh your skills.

Affect vs. Effect

Definitions: Affect is primarily a verb, meaning "to act on" or "to impress the mind and feelings." Effect, on the other hand, is usually a noun that refers to a state of being effective.

Proper usage: "My actions affected department operations, leading to a 10% savings in the telecommunications budget."

"My actions had a positive effect on department operations, leading to a 10% savings in the telecommunications budget."

One notable exception: "Effect" can be used as a verb meaning "to bring about." For example: "My actions effected changes in departmental operations, leading to a 10% savings in the telecommunications budget."

Verses vs. Versus

Definitions: Verses is the plural form of verse, which refers to part of a written poem or song; versus (abbreviated as vs. or v.) is a Latin term meaning against or as compared to.

Proper usage: "We increased album revenue by composing extra verses for an award-winning single by an up-and-coming band."

"I led a task force that weighed the costs of traveling by air versus rail."

Discreet vs. Discrete

Definitions: They're both adjectives. Discreet means understated or confidential; discrete means individual, or detached from others. For instance, a company in the "discrete manufacturing" industry produces goods that are counted individually or identified by serial numbers. The goods are counted as distinct units rather than by weight or volume, such as processed foods or motor oil.

Proper usage: "We thoroughly and discreetly investigated the sexual harassment complaint."

"He has 10 years of senior executive experience in the discrete manufacturing industry."

Principle vs. Principal

Definitions: Principle is a noun referring to an accepted or professed rule or action (e.g., "sticking to your principles"). Principal can be an adjective or a noun, depending on how it's used. The adjective means first or highest in rank, while the noun refers to a head or leader (like a school principal), or the original sum of a loan.

Proper usage: "We are developing a set of ethical principles that all students will follow."

"As principal sales associate for the Northeast states, I generated a 20% increase in sales last year."

"The bank ensured that mortgage applicants' principals and incomes fell within standard lending limits."

Incite vs. Insight

Definitions: Incite is a verb that means to stir up or encourage, such as a riot. Insight is a noun that means a keen understanding, perception, or intuition.

Proper usage: "We hope to incite and direct lively, campus-wide discussions about how to improve overall student writing skills."

"The two years I spent studying abroad helped me develop new insight into how the global economy operates."

One tip: If you're a very perceptive individual, you're insightful. If you're inciteful, managers will want to stay away from you. ("Sure, I can be insightful! You should have seen the stuff I incited when I played hockey. I spent a lot of time in the penalty box.")

What word pairs tend to trip you up?

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  1. Plurals and contractions get me all too often. I tend to write so fast at times that I just forget to put all the little marks in quite the right places;)

    My peeves are, They’re-Their, Huge,Hughe. I can't count how many times I've resd those being misused and misspelled and for some irrational reason get annoyed all to heck!

  2. Paul:

    I know just how you feel. They're/their/there has long been one of my pet peeves, too.

    Isn't it funny how we can react emotionally to simple grammar errors? It's as if we feel the writers are actually offending us on some personal level! Yet, who has not been guilty of the occasional typo? It's a fast-paced digital world and at times my fingers on the keyboard simply can't keep pace with my brain.

    Thank you for adding your voice. It's good to know I am not alone!