Business Writing Lesson: Commonly Misused Words

Lesson 3: Avoiding Bad Words

Have you ever been reading some text, maybe even a novel, and you found yourself going back to reread a sentence or two because something just seemed a little off, but you couldn’t put your finger on it?

This often happens when a sentence is punctuated incorrectly or when a common word is misused. As we have said before, good writing, including good business writing, allows the reader to focus on WHAT is being said instead of worrying about HOW its being said. And breaking the reader’s mental flow by using words incorrectly is not good business writing!

Sometimes it’s merely the need for speed that can make us lazy about using the correct word; sometimes we think we understand when we really don’t. Either way, this lesson offers some guidelines on commonly misused words – ones that can break the flow of the text and take the reader’s mind of the content.

insure, ensure, and assure
Typically, “insure” is used within the insurance field. If you are talking about insuring your car or house or different types of health insurance, this is the word you would use. Note that it usually carries a direct object, but no indirect object. (Example – I need to insure the new car better than the old one was because of the requirements of the loan on it.)

“Ensure” is used similarly, but usually in regard to ideas and actions. Note that it often has the word “that” directly behind it. (Example – Please ensure that your supervisor understands why you will be leaving early.)

“Assure” is different because it almost always takes an indirect object; that is, you need to say whom you are assuring of the information. (Example – I can assure you that this is an unusual situation.) The indirect object in the example is “you.”

lay and lie
The key difference between these two words is intent or will. It involves a choice – a person or animal, etc. can choose to lie upon something, but a book or pencil cannot choose to lay upon something. Someone must put it there. Also, another clue is that “lay” always has a direct object. (Example – Before I lie down to sleep each night, I lay my book on the nightstand.)

Also note that there can be confusion in one of the verb tenses:
(lay, laid, laid, laying) vs. (lie, lay, lain, lying)
(Example – I lay down yesterday [simple past tense of “lie”] for a nap, but whenever I nap, I always lay my book [present tense of “lay] on the nightstand first.

its and it’s
The secret here is that pronouns don’t take “apostrophe plus S” to make them possessive. Decide whether you can change the “apostrophe plus S” to “is.” (Example – It’s going to be a long time before the tech comes, so the copy machine is going to keep spitting out its paper regularly.) Since you could say “It is going to be a long time…” you know the apostrophe form is correct. But you wouldn’t want to say “…spitting out it is paper regularly.” Pronouns don’t take “apostrophe plus S” to form the possessive: That is [my, your, her, his, its, their, our] book. Even when shifting a sentence to a little different form, NONE of them use the apostrophe: The book is [mine, yours, hers, his, its, theirs, ours].

This is NOT even a word in standard written English, although it is used quite commonly in casual writing or nonstandard speech. The correct usage is “regardless.” (Example – Regardless of the outcome, I am still putting in my two-weeks notice.) Remember we said that language is always changing? Perhaps this is one of those words that, through constant and regular use, will actually become standard as time goes on.

infer and imply
The difference between these two involves whether there is some assuming going on by the reader or listener. “Imply” means that something is inherent in the text or conversation without being explicitly stated. (Example – When the teacher stated that the test results were not good, she implied that few, if any, students got good grades.) On the other hand, “infer” is when the reader or listener draws some kind of conclusion. (Example – When the teacher told us that we would all have to retake the test, we inferred this was because few, if any, of us got a good grade on it.)

got and gotten
Since the advent of “You’ve got mail!” these two words have become more and more confused in standard English – both verbal and written. Their basis is the word “get” which means to receive in some way, instead of meaning to possess in some way. Just remember that the basic verb forms of “get” are (get, got, gotten, getting). (Example – I got a message yesterday that said “You have gotten mail.”) Note, that the contraction “you’ve” actually stands for “you have” and so the correct form would be “you have gotten,” not “you have got.” If the point is to say that there is some mail waiting for you (you possess mail) – as opposed to you have received some mail – then it would simply be “You have mail.”

Also in relation to the question of “got” being redundant, and “have” being sufficient, the phrase “You have got to….” again uses the extra word where it isn’t needed in standard written English. The meaning, here, is “must,” and to say “You have to…” is sufficient.

farther and further
While there is a definite usage convention on these two, it’s hardly ever followed completely and the two have become virtually interchangeable in both written and verbal communication. The “rule” says that “farther” should only be used with physical distances, and “further” for everything else. (Example – The farther we drove down the road, the further our discussion moved from its original intent.)

discreet and discrete
These two can create some awfully funny incorrectly worded sentences. “Discreet” means having discretion; that is, being careful in what you say or do. But “discrete” means separate or distinct. (Example – I would prefer we kept our relationship discreet since we do not have a discrete office setting.)

different than and different from
Although these seem to have become interchangeable, many people still require that formal written English fit the following: use “different from” when comparing two things, and use “different than” when you use a whole clause to create the comparison. (Example – Your format looks different from mine. Perhaps this is because the format I used is different than the most common business letter formats.)

continual and continuous
Both of these mean something that keeps going, but “continual” is used in reference to something that is interrupted periodically, whereas “continuous” refers to a physical sense of continuation. (Example – The continual barking of the dog was interfering with my concentration. Instead of working, I started making a continuous line around the top of my desk using paper clips.)

complement and compliment
This is another combination that can create some quite funny sentences. When two things “complement” one another, they fit together well. On the other hand, to “compliment” something is to praise it. (INCORRECT Example – The company’s overarching goal compliments my report. CORRECT Example – My report complements the company’s overarching goal.)

affect and effect
The usage of these two can be rather confusing. The simplest explanation is that “affect” is usually used as a verb with an indirect object, with the meaning of influencing the indirect object in some way. (Example – The higher gas prices affected our vacation.) And most often, “effect” is used as a noun to refer to HOW something affects something else. (Example – Higher gas prices had a definite effect on our vacation.) The primary exception to this rule is a relatively unusual verb construction of “effect” that means to start, or to create. (Example – His report suggested effecting a change in the procedure manual.)

apprise and appraise
These have clear-cut meanings; you just have to know which one you want to use. “Apprise” always takes an indirect object (usually a person or group of people) and it means to give them information about something. (Example – I apprised the committee of the fact that the schedule printed in the paper was wrong.) “Appraise,” though, does not require an indirect object and means to judge the merit of something. It’s most often used in real estate to mean setting a value for a certain property. However, it can be used to “judge” other items as well. (Example – During your evaluation, we appraise whether your absences affect your dependability.)

your and you’re
Remember back in the discussion of “it” and “it’s,” we said that the “apostrophe plus S” meant you could substitute “is?” This is similar in that here, the “apostrophe plus RE” means you can substitute “are.” After all, in most cases except possessive, an apostrophe signals that letters are missing – in this case the “A” from “are.” (Example – If you don’t return your library book soon, you’re going to be facing outrageous late fees!)

to, too, and two
Most of us don’t use the word “two” incorrectly – it’s merely the written form of the number, “2.” However, the other two often cause confusion. “Too” has two very different uses. First, it can mean excessive, and it’s usually used – in this case – as an adverbial that modifies adjectives or other adverbs. (Example – Today when I jogged, I ran too far and too hard for my injured leg to continue to heal properly.) In the example, “too” modifies “far” and “hard,” implying that the distance and speed/exertion were excessive. “Too” can also mean “also.” (Example – While I prefer meeting deadlines, I like to go home on time, too.)

The third one, “to,” is either a preposition with several meanings, the most common of which is a direction (Example – I went to the boss about it.), or it forms part of a verb. (Example – I went [to see] the boss about it.)


For a teaching lesson plan for this lesson see:
Business Writing Lesson Plan – Misused Words


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