As a business professional one of the worst offenses you can commit is to use the wrong word in a business setting. It makes you look uninformed and unintelligent, and undermines your position. So I have once again gathered more words that are easily confused and misused so you will not fall into the trap of using the wrong word when you are in a business meeting or making a pitch to a prospective client. The following are the most frequently confused and misused words in the English language.
Aggressive and enthusiastic
Aggressive has become a very popular business adjective: we have an aggressive sales force, aggressive revenue projections, aggressive product rollout. But regrettably, aggressive means ready to attack, or confront, uncooperative, unprovoked attacks or invasions.
Do you really want an “aggressive” sales force, revenue projections or product rollouts?
The word aggressive has been used that way for so long, most people don’t think of it negatively; to them it just means hard-charging, results-oriented, driven, etc., none of which are bad things or accurate.
If you want to speak clearly and say what you actually mean perhaps consider using words like enthusiastic, eager, excited, committed, dedicated, or even passionate.
Award and reward
An award is a prize. Car companies win J.D. Power awards. Actors win Oscars. Women win for Best Jam at the State Fair. Think of an award as the result of a contest or competition.
A reward is something given in return for effort, achievement, hard work, merit, etc. A sales commission is a reward. A bonus is a reward.
Applaud when your employees win industry or civic awards, and reward them for the hard work and sacrifices they make to help your business grow.
Compliment and complement
Compliment means to say something nice. Complement means added to, enhanced, improved, completed, or brought close to perfection.
I compliment your staff and their attention to service. I see you have added some new enhancements that complement your website, for which I compliment you.
Continuous and continual
Both words come from the root continue, but they have different meanings. Continuous means never ending. Your efforts to develop your employees should be continuous, because you never want to stop improving their skills and their future.
Continual means stops and starts. If your employee training is on a continual basis, some of the employees may not be able to keep up.
That’s why you should focus on continuous training but plan to have continual meetings with your trainers: To make sure everybody is staying on track.
Criterion and criteria
A criterion is a principle or standard. If you have more than one criterion, those are referred to as criteria.
If you want to play it safe and you only have one issue to consider, just say standard, condition or benchmark. Then use criteria when there are multiple principles or standards involved.
Discreet and discrete
Discreet means subtle, understated, restrained, and inconspicuous: “We made discreet inquiries to determine whether the owner was interested in selling her company.”
Discrete means disconnected, separate, or distinct: “We analyzed data from a number of discrete market segments to determine overall pricing levels.”
Elicit and illicit
Elicit means to provoke, cause, draw out or coax. Think of elicit as the mildest form of extract. If one lucky survey respondent will win a trip to the Bahamas, the prize is designed to elicit responses.
Illicit means illegal, dishonest, criminal, forbidden or unlawful. Although they offered the trip to the Bahamas to elicit responses, the fact that they were not going to actually award a trip made the whole thing illicit.
Evoke and invoke
To evoke is to call to mind or remind; an unusual smell might evoke a long-lost memory. To invoke is pray, appeal, beseech, entreat, implore or call upon for help or mercy.
So all your branding efforts should evoke specific emotions in potential customers. But if they don’t, you might consider invoking the gods of commerce to aid you in your quest for profitability, or at least in finding a new marketing company (like maybe The Robbins Group…).
Insure and ensure
This one’s easy. Insure refers to insurance. Ensure means to make sure.
So if you promise an order will ship on time, ensure that it actually happens. Unless, of course, you plan to arrange for compensation if the package is damaged or lost — then feel free to insure away.
(While there are exceptions where insure is used, the safe move is to use ensure when you will do everything possible to make sure something happens.)
Irregardless and regardless
Irregardless appears in some dictionaries because it’s widely used to mean “without regard to” or “without respect to,” which is also what regardless means. But Irregardless is not actually a word.
In theory the ir-, which typically means “not,” joined up with regardless, which means “without regard to,” makes irregardless mean “not without regard to,” or more simply, “with regard to.”
Just say regardless.
Mute and moot
Think of mute like the button on your remote; it means unspoken or unable to speak. In the U.S., moot refers to something that is of no practical importance; a moot point is one that could be hypothetical or even (gasp!) academic. In British English, moot can also mean debatable or open to debate.
So if you were planning an IPO, but your sales have plummeted, the idea of going public could be moot. And if you decide not to talk about it anymore, you will have gone mute on the subject.
Precede and proceed
Precede means to come before. Proceed means to begin or continue. Where it gets confusing is when an –ing is added on. “The proceeding announcement was brought to you by…” sounds fine, but preceding is actually correct since the announcement came before.
Here is a trick to keep it straight: think of a precedence. Anything that takes precedence came first.
Principle and principal
A principle is a standard: “Our culture is based on a set of shared principles.” Principal means primary or of first importance: “Our firm’s principal is located in LA.” (Sometimes you’ll also see the plural, principals, used to refer to executives.)
Principal can also refer to the most important item in a particular set: “Our principal account makes up 65 percent of our gross revenues.”
Principal can also refer to money, normally a sum that was borrowed, but can be extended to refer to the amount you owe — hence principal and interest.
If you’re referring to laws, rules, guidelines, ethics, etc., use principle. If you’re referring to the CEO or the president (or an individual in charge of a high school), use principal.
Slander and libel
Slander is when you don’t like what people say about you? Libel refers to making a false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation.
The difference lies in how that statement is expressed. Slanderous remarks are spoken while libelous remarks are written and published (which means defamatory tweets could be considered libelous, not slanderous).
What makes a statement libelous or slanderous is its inaccuracy. If there is truth in the statement then you have no case.
Sympathy and empathy
Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s feelings. “I am sorry for your loss” means you understand the other person is grieving and want to recognize that fact.
Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and relate to how the person feels, at least in part because you’ve experienced those feelings yourself.
The difference is huge. Sympathy is passive; empathy is active. Know the difference between sympathy and empathy, live the difference, and you’ll make a bigger difference in other people’s lives, and in your own.
Systemic and systematic
Systematic means arranged or carried out according to a plan, method, or system. You can take a systematic approach to continuous improvement, or do a systematic evaluation of customer revenue or a systematic assessment of market conditions.
Systemic means belonging to or affecting the system as a whole. Poor morale could be systemic to your organization. Or bias against employee diversity could be systemic.
So if your organization is facing a systemic problem, take a systematic approach to dealing with it.
I am hopeful that these distinctions will help you out and save your bacon in front of your business associates in the future or in front of prospective clients. And that you can now speak with more confidence know that some of the most commonly misused words will not be a problem for you. Next time we will explore more tricky words and prases to give you even more confidence!
9 thoughts on “That Makes No Sense! Please Use The Right Word In The Correct Circumstance.”
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