speech-bubbles-blackboard
Getty Images

39 Commonly Misused Words and How to Use Them Correctly

Mar 04, 2015

Inc. logo

Where the mechanics of writing are concerned, I'm far from perfect. One example: I always struggle with who and whom. (Sometimes I'll even rewrite a sentence just so I won't have to worry about which is correct.)

And that's a real problem. The same way one misspelled word can get your résumé tossed onto the reject pile, one misused word can negatively impact your entire message.

Fair or unfair, it happens all the time--so let's make sure it doesn't happen to you.

My post 30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Bad resulted in readers providing a number of other examples of misused words, and here are some of them. Once again I've picked words that are typically used in business settings, with special emphasis on words that spell checker won't correct.

Here we go:

Advise and advice

Aside from the two words being pronounced differently (the s in advise sounds like az), advise is a verb while advice is a noun. Advice is what you give (whether or not the recipient is interested in that gift is a different issue altogether) when you advise someone.

So, "Thank you for the advise" is incorrect, while "I advise you not to bore me with your advice in the future" is correct if pretentious.

If you run into trouble, just say each word out loud and you'll instantly know which makes sense; there's no way you'd ever say, "I advice you to..."

Ultimate and penultimate

Recently I received a pitch from a PR professional that read, "(Acme Industries) provides the penultimate value-added services for discerning professionals."

As Inigo would say, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

Ultimate means the best, or final, or last. Penultimate means the last but one, or second to last. (Or, as a Monty Python-inspired Michelangelo would say, "the Penultimate Supper!")

But penultimate doesn't mean second-best. Plus, I don't think my PR friend meant to say her client offered second-class services. (I think she just thought the word sounded cool.)

Also, keep in mind that using ultimate is fraught with hyperbolic peril. Are you--or is what you provide--really the absolute best imaginable? That's a tough standard to meet.

Well and good

Anyone who has children uses good more often than he or she should. Since kids pretty quickly learn what good means, "You did good, honey" is much more convenient and meaningful than "You did well, honey."

But that doesn't mean good is the correct word choice.

Good is an adjective that describes something; if you did a good job, then you do good work. Well is an adverb that describes how something was done; you can do your job well.

Where it gets tricky is when you describe, say, your health or emotional state. "I don't feel well" is grammatically correct, even though many people (including me) often say, "I don't feel too good." On the other hand, "I don't feel good about how he treated me" is correct; no one says, "I don't feel well about how I'm treated."

Confused? If you're praising an employee and referring to the outcome say, "You did a good job." If you're referring to how the employee performed say, "You did incredibly well."

And while you're at it, stop saying good to your kids and use great instead, because no one--especially a kid--ever receives too much praise.

If and whether

If and whether are often interchangeable. If a yes/no condition is involved, then feel free to use either: "I wonder whether Jim will finish the project on time" or "I wonder if Jim will finish the project on time." (Whether sounds a little more formal in this case, so consider your audience and how you wish to be perceived.)

What's trickier is when a condition is not involved. "Let me know whether Marcia needs a projector for the meeting" isn't conditional, because you want to be informed either way. "Let me know if Marcia needs a projector for the meeting" is conditional, because you only want to be told if she needs one.

And always use if when you introduce a condition. "If you hit your monthly target, I'll increase your bonus" is correct; the condition is hitting the target and the bonus is the result. "Whether you are able to hit your monthly target is totally up to you" does not introduce a condition (unless you want the employee to infer that your thinly veiled threat is a condition of ongoing employment).

Stationary and stationery

You write on stationery. You get business stationery, such as letterhead and envelopes, printed.

But that box of envelopes is not stationary unless it's not moving--and even then it's still stationery.

Award and reward

An award is a prize. Musicians win Grammy Awards. Car companies win J.D. Power awards. Employees win Employee of the Month awards. 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. A free trip for landing the most new customers is a reward.

Be happy when your employees win industry or civic awards, and reward them for the hard work and sacrifices they make to help your business grow.

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. (Here's a short video by Brené Brown that does a great job of describing the difference--and how empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection.)

Know the difference between sympathy and empathy, live the difference, and you'll make a bigger difference in other people's lives.

Criterion and criteria

A criterion is a principle or standard. If you have more than one criterion, those are referred to as criteria.

But if you want to be safe and you only have one issue to consider, just say standardor rule or benchmark. Then use criteria for all the times there are multiple specifications or multiple criterion (OK, standards) involved.

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, mootcan 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.

Peak and peek

A peak is the highest point; climbers try to reach the peak of Mount Everest. Peekmeans quick glance, as in giving major customers a sneak peek at a new product before it's officially unveiled, which hopefully helps sales peak at an unimaginable height.

Occasionally a marketer will try to "peak your interest" or "peek your interest," but in that case the right word is pique, which means "to excite." (Pique can also mean "to upset," but hopefully that's not what marketers intend.)

Aggressive and enthusiastic

Aggressive is a very popular business adjective: aggressive sales force, aggressive revenue projections, aggressive product rollout. But unfortunately, aggressive means ready to attack, or pursuing aims forcefully, possibly unduly so.

So do you really want an "aggressive" sales force?

Of course, most people have seen aggressive used that way for so long they don't think of it negatively; to them it just means hard-charging, results-oriented, driven, etc., none of which are bad things.

But some people may not see it that way. So consider using words like enthusiastic,eager, committed, dedicated, or even (although it pains me to say it) passionate.

Then and than

Then refers in some way to time. "Let's close this deal, and then we'll celebrate!" Since the celebration comes after the sale, then is correct.

Then is also often used with if. Think in terms of if-then statements: "If we don't get to the office on time, then we won't be able to close the deal today."

Than involves a comparison. "Landing Customer A will result in higher revenue than landing Customer B," or "Our sales team is more committed to building customer relationships than the competition is."

Evoke and invoke

To evoke is to call to mind; an unusual smell might evoke a long-lost memory. To invoke is to call upon some thing: help, aid, or maybe a higher power.

So hopefully all your branding and messaging efforts 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 something like that.

Continuously and continually

Both words come from the root continue, but they mean very different things.Continuously means never ending. Hopefully your efforts to develop your employees are continuous, because you never want to stop improving their skills and their future.

Continual means whatever you're referring to stops and starts. You might have frequent disagreements with your co-founder, but unless those discussions never end (which is unlikely, even though it might feel otherwise), then those disagreements are continual.

That's why you should focus on continuous improvement but only plan to have continual meetings with your accountant: The former should never, ever stop, and the other (mercifully) should.

Systemic and systematic

If you're in doubt, systematic is almost always the right word to use. Systematic means arranged or carried out according to a plan, method, or system. That's why 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 pervasive problem, take a systematic approach to dealing with it—that's probably the only way you'll overcome it.

Impact and affect (and effect)

Many people (including until recently me) use impact when they should use affect. Impact doesn't mean to influence; impact means to strike, collide, or pack firmly.

Affect means to influence: "Impatient investors affected our rollout date."

And to make it more confusing, effect means to accomplish something: "The board effected a sweeping policy change."

How you correctly use effect or affect can be tricky. For example, a board can affect changes by influencing them and can effect changes by directly implementing them. Bottom line, use effect if you're making it happen, and affect if you're having an impact on something that someone else is trying to make happen.

As for nouns, effect is almost always correct: "Employee morale has had a negative effect on productivity." Affect refers to an emotional state, so unless you're a psychologist, you probably have little reason to use it.

So stop saying you'll "impact sales" or "impact the bottom line." Use affect.

(And feel free to remind me when I screw that up, because I feel sure I'll backslide.)

Between and among

Use between when you name separate and individual items. "The team will decide between Mary, Marcia, and Steve when we fill the open customer service position." Mary, Marcia, and Steve are separate and distinct, so between is correct.

Use among when there are three or more items but they are not named separately. "The team will decide among a number of candidates when we fill the open customer service position." Who are the candidates? You haven't named them separately, s oamong is correct.

And we're assuming there are more than two candidates; otherwise you'd say between. If there are two candidates you could say, "I just can't decide between them."

Everyday and every day

Every day means, yep, every day—each and every day. If you ate a bagel for breakfast each day this week, you had a bagel every day.

Everyday means commonplace or normal. Decide to wear your "everyday shoes" and that means you've chosen to wear the shoes you normally wear. That doesn't mean you have to wear them every single day; it just means wearing them is a usual occurrence.

Another example is along and a long: Along means moving in a constant direction or a line, or in the company of others, while a long means of great distance or duration. You wouldn't stand in "along line," but you might stand in a long line for a long time, along with a number of other people.

A couple more examples: a while and awhile, and any way and anyway.

If you're in doubt, read what you write out loud. It's unlikely you'll think "Is there anyway you can help me?" sounds right.

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 Inc.com.

More from Inc.:

Read next: These Are the 2 Most Important Words in a Job Interview

newsletter
The Brief NewsletterSign up to receive the top stories you need to know right now. View Sample

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.