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20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible |

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Jeff Haden


May 15, 2014

Easy to get wrong. And easy to get


This post is in partnership with Inc.,

which offers useful advice, resources and
insights to entrepreneurs and business
owners. The article below was originally
published at
My recent post, 30 Incorrectly Used
Words That Can Make You Look
Horrible, sparked a flurry of emails
requesting more examples.

A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

So here they are. While there are

hundreds of incorrectly used words, Ive picked words commonly used in business
Here we go:
1. Anticipate
We anticipate earnings will increase by $1 per share.
No you dont. To anticipate means to look ahead and prepare. So you can anticipate
increased sales, but only if you are also making preparations to handle that increase in
sales; for example, We added staffing in anticipation of increased sales.
If youre estimating or wishful guessing, use estimate or expect instead. Or, if you live



20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible |

where I live, use reckon. Its good enough for Clint.

2. Arbitrate
Arbitrate appears in many contracts. An arbitrator is like a judge; she hears evidence,
reviews documents, etc, and then makes a decision. Thats different from mediate: a
mediator doesnt make decisions but tries to help two opposing parties work out their
differences and reach a compromise or settlement.
So if you agree to enter mediation in the event of a dispute, you and the other party will
try to hash out your problem the help of a neutral party. And if you cant reach an
agreement that usually means your next step will be to go to court.
If you agree to arbitration a neutral party will make a decision that you will have to live
with. Normally there are no next steps. (Except maybe disappointment.)
3. Behalf
The problem with behalf isnt the word itself; its the word that comes before.
A person who acts on your behalf is acting as a kind of representative, like a lawyer or
accountant or agent. On behalf of denotes a formal or professional relationship. A
person who acts in your behalf is acting as a supporter or friend, so the relationship is
assumed to be less formal.
The customer needed an answer so Jenny spoke on your behalf, means that Jenny
stood in for you and (hopefully) represented your position. The customer was upset
with how you treated her and Jenny spoke in your behalf, means Jenny took up for you
and your clearly deficient customer service skills.
4. Bottleneck
A bottleneck is a point of constraint or limitation, like a machine in an assembly line that
runs slower than the preceding equipment.
That means a bottleneck cant grow. A bottleneck cant get bigger. A bottleneck cant
expand. A bottleneck can cripple productivity, but it cant spread to overwhelm your
shop floor.
5. Can
Can is used to indicate what is possible. May is used to indicate what is permissible. I can
offer kickbacks to certain vendors, but unless Im ethically challenged I may not.
Telling your staff, You can not offer refunds without authorization, sounds great but is
incorrect. They certainly can even though they shouldnt.
6. Collusion



20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible |

Many people use collusion as a fancy way to imply cooperation or collaboration.

Collusion does mean to cooperate or work togetherbut towards a result that is
deceitful, fraudulent, or even illegal.
Thats why you probably never want to refer to yourself as colluding in, well, anything.
7. Defective
A machine that doesnt work properly is defective. A process that doesnt achieve a
desired result is defective. When a machine doesnt work properly because its missing a
key component, its deficient, just like a process with a gap is deficient.
So feel free to say, His skills are deficient, when an employee is lacking specific skills
(because youre focusing on the missing skill and not the employee), but leave defective
to discussions of inanimate objects.
Even if an employee doesnt work properly, in context it sounds pretty harsh.
8. Germane
Germane is the same as relevant. Each shows that something applies.
But dont mistake germane (or relevant) with material. A material point helps make a
position or argument complete; its essential. A point germane to the discussion may be
interesting, and even worth saying but its not essential.
Think of it this way. In meetings we often get bored when people raise germane points/
theyre (mildly) interesting but often unnecessary. We listen when people raise material
pointsbecause those points matter.
9. Invariably
This word gets tossed in to indicate frequency: Invariably, Johnny misses deadlines, is
only correct if Johnny always, always, always misses deadlines, because invariably
means in every case or occasion.
Unless Johnny messes up each and every time, without fail, use frequently, or usually,
or even almost always. And then think about his long-term employment status.
10. Irregardless
Heres a word that appears in many dictionaries simply because its used so often.
Irregardless is used to mean without regard to or without respect to which is what
regardless means. In theory the ir part, 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.
Which is clearly not what you mean.



20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible |

So save yourself one syllable or two keystrokes and just say regardless.
11. Libel
Dont like what people say about you?
Like slander, libel refers to making a false statement that is harmful to a persons
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.)
Keep in mind what makes a statement libelous or slanderous is its inaccuracy, not its
harshness. No matter how nasty a tweet, if its factually correct it cannot. Truth is an
absolute defense to defamationyou might wish a customer hadnt said something
derogatory about your business, but if what that customer said is true you have no
legal recourse.
12. Literally
Literally is frequently used (all too often by teenagers I know) to add emphasis. The
problem is literally means actually, without exaggeration, so, That customer was
literally foaming at the mouth, cannot be true without the involvement of rabies or
inaccurately applied Scrubbing Bubbles.
The only time using literally makes sense is when you need to indicate what is normally a
figurative expression is, this time, truly the case. Saying, He literally died when he saw
the invoice, only works if the customer did, in fact, pass away moments after seeing the
13. Majority
Majority is another emphasis word used to sound authoritative and awesome: The
majority of our customers are satisfied with our service, makes it sound like youre
doing great, right? Nopesince majority is defined as the greater number, all you have
said is that 51% of your customers are satisfied which means 49% are not so thrilled.
Majority can get you in trouble when accuracy is really important. The majority of our
investors support our plans to pivot, sounds like almost all of them are behind you
when in fact nearly half might not be. The majority of our shipments deliver on time,
sounds like youre the king of meeting deadlines when in fact you could be missing
delivery dates on what a prospective customer would find to be a depressingly regular
Heres a better approach. Use statistics or facts. Or just say most or nearly all. Then
you wont have to worry about giving the wrong impression.
14. New
Thank advertisers for the over-use and frequent redundancy of this word. Acme Inc.
announces breakthrough new product. By definition arent all breakthroughs new?



20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible |

Acme Inc. sets new sales records. By definition arent all records new? Acme Inc.
creates new social media sharing platform. By definition arent all creations new?
New might sound impressive, but since it can also sound like hyperbolic advertising
copy, it may cause readers to tune out what is really important about your message.
15. Obsolete
Obsolete means no longer produced, used, or needed. But since lots of things are out of
date but still usablethink flip phonesthey are obsolescent, not obsolete. Obsolete is
the end point; obsolescent is the journey towards.
16. Percent
The difference in percent and percentage point could leave you feeling cheated. Say
youre negotiating a loan with a listed interest rate of 6% and the lender says hell reduce
the rate by 1%. Strictly speaking that means hell reduce the interest by 1% of 6%, or
.06%. That means your new interest rate is 5.94%. Yippee.
Percent refers to a relative increase or reduction, while percentage point refers to the
actual change in rate. If you want a 5% loan instead of a 6% loan, youre hoping for a
reduction of 1 percentage point.
Most of the time the difference isnt a big deal. If you see a new report saying interest
rates rose 1%, you can safely assume it means 1 percentage point. But if youre signing a
contract or agreement make sure you know the difference in meaningand approve of
the difference.
17. Successfully
Heres the king of redundant words, often used to add a little extra oomph: We
successfullylaunched our new product. Wait: in order to have launched, you have to
have beensuccessful. (Otherwise you unsuccessfully launched.)
If you create, or develop, or implement, just say you did. We know you were successful.
Otherwise you wouldnt tell us.
18. T otal
Total is another word used redundantly to add emphasis. We were totally surprised by
last months sales, sounds more significant than, We were surprised by last months
sales, but a surprise is either unexpected or its not. (I suppose you could be a little
surprised, but thats like being a little pregnant.)
The same is true when total is used to refer to a number. Why say, A total of 32
customers purchased extended warranties, when, 32 customers purchased extended
warranties, will do?
And one last point: make sure you get the verb tense right. A total of six months was
spent developing the app, is wrong because a total of refers to all six months, which is



20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible |

plural, which requires were. (As in, A total of six months were spent developing the
If you refer to the total of, use was, as in, The total of employee benefit costs was
$10 million last year, because in that case you are referring to the actual total and not
all the different costs that make up the total.
In short: The total of gets a was. A total of gets a were.
Or you could just say, Employee benefits cost $10 million last year. Doesnt sound as
dramatic, but does sound better.
19. Waiver
When you sign a waiver you give up the right to make a claim. When you waver you
arent signing it yet because youre hesitant.
So hey, feel free to waver to sign that waiver. Your instincts just might be correct.
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