TIME language

Russia’s Spin Job of the MH17 Crash Brings Back Soviet Memories

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia, July 16, 2014. Alexei Nikolskyi—Ria Novosti/Reuters

Moscow's response to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a return to the ham-handed ways of the Soviet days — and that portends bad things

A Russian disaster is almost never followed by Russian candor. This is true of most countries, but most countries are at least adept at explaining themselves — even if disingenuously — as the George W. Bush Administration showed with its flood-the-airwaves spin campaign after the weapons of mass destruction that were the casus belli of the Iraq War turned out not to exist. Not so Russia, and — as TIME’s Simon Shuster reports — its response to the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the murder of the 298 people on board is one more illustration of that fact. Even after what are purported to be recordings between a pro-Russian rebel and a Russian military officer discussing the destruction of the airliner surfaced, Moscow remained in defiant denial — even flipping the script to blame Ukraine. “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took a lower road, going for the ad hominem: “With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it,” he said to a Russian state-run news channel, “in fact I haven’t heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months.” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described this response with elegant understatement, labeling it “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.” Soviet Russia was even more ham-handed in its defense of itself. A few days after the April 26, 1986, explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Soviet Ambassador Eugene Pozdnyakov appeared with Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline. When Koppel asked him why Russia initially covered up the accident, coming clean only when radiation readings in Europe revealed the truth, Pozdnyakov blamed the calendar. “It happened on Saturday,” he said, “and the governments of proper countries are usually on holidays on weekends.” Koppel responded with frank incredulity, scolding the diplomat with a simple, “Oh, come on!” In the current crisis, Moscow could at least call on experience, since — depressingly, remarkably — it’s not even the first time Russia has been implicated in shooting down a civilian passenger plane. That first time occurred on Sept. 1, 1983, when a military interceptor jet blew Korean Airlines Flight 007 out of the sky, killing 269 people, after the plane accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. Moscow hedged and fudged and blamed the Korean pilot for being where he wasn’t supposed to be, and finally decided to fake transparency, releasing what were said to be air to ground transcripts between the interceptor plane and the base, intending to show, if nothing else, that the pilot seemed confused about what was happening. At one point during the attack, he was said to have exclaimed “yolki palki,” which TIME described then as “an exceedingly mild oath,” and indeed it is. Its literal translation is “sticks of the fir tree.” And it’s English equivalent? “Fiddlesticks.” The fighter pilot has not been born who speaks that way when engaging the enemy. Wordplay amounts to little for the 298 people killed in the new attack — or for the 298 grieving families. But it amounts to a lot as the rest of the world tries to reckon with Russia’s new aggression and its return to its old, opaque ways. The attack on the plane was over quickly; the aftermath promises to play out slowly and uncertainly.

TIME language

This Is the World’s Most Average Font

Universal Typeface Project

Better than Comic Sans!

Before we all give up handwriting for good in lieu of touchscreens, the Universal Typeface Project is attempting to figure out what exactly the world’s average handwriting looks like. The project aims to develop a new font determined by thousands of individuals writing out there ABC’s, traces that can be seen on the project’s website. The exact averages form an elegant kind of Comic Sans—which was supposed to approximate informal handwriting but failed utterly. These are the platonic ideals of English-language letters.

Mousing over each version of a letter brings up the name and location of the person who wrote it. Rather than standardizing our language, the Universal Typeface actually restores a sense of individuality to typefaces online—it’s poetically organic rather than strictly designed to always look the same. It’s possible to sort the handwriting by country or gender, seeing how it varies for different writers. The letters are even ever-changing as more people contribute their own handwriting.

TIME Media

The F-Word: Let’s Just Call It What It Is… [Bleep!]

Los Angeles Kings Victory Parade And Rally
Los Angeles Kings Mayor Eric Garcetti raises a beer and swears during the Los Angeles Kings Victory Parade and Rally on June 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Harry How—Getty Images

(But if you don't like hearing it, or saying it, or reading it, you should probably stop right here.)

In making headlines after declaring at a hockey rally, “This is a big fuckin’ day,” was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti having a big fuckin’ day himself? Or rather, one for the f-word?

There are real data now to help answer such a question. Relatively recent technologies — cable television, satellite radio, and social network media — provide us with a not-too-unrealistic picture of how often people swear in public and what they say when they do. Before these new forms of reporting, the media provided a fairly sanitized view of spoken English. Newspapers today still swerve to avoid swearing, opting for euphemisms like “_____,” “PG-rated expletive,” or “an eight-letter word for animal excrement,” instead of telling us what was really said. Fortunately, YouTube now offers people like me, who study language and profanity, a more accurate picture.

Are widely reported acts of swearing by public figures like Garcetti’s typical or not? And are the rest of us any different? How frequently do regular people swear and what do we say?

We language scientists attempt to answer these questions. In one study reported in the journal Science, less than one percent of the words used by participants (who were outfitted with voice recorders over a period of time) were swear words. That doesn’t sound like very much, but if a person says 15,000 words per day, that’s about 80 to 90 “fucks” and such during that time. (Of course, there’s variability–some people don’t say any swear words while other people rival David Mamet). More recently, my research team reported in The American Journal of Psychology that “fuck” and “shit” appeared consistently in the vocabularies of children between 1 to 12 years of age. And you shouldn’t worry — there is no evidence to suggest a swear word would harm a youngster physically or psychologically.

So please, let’s not be shocked by swear word statistics, or by politicians swearing in public. Politicians get caught swearing all the time. In 2000, George W. Bush referred to a New York Times reporter as a “major league a–hole.” In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney told Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to go [bleep!] himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden called the passage of President Obama’s health care legislation “a big fucking deal.” (Granted, it was meant to be said more privately than the mic conveyed.) I place Mayor Garcetti’s profane celebration of the Kings’ Stanley Cup in the Biden category of Happiness-Induced Cussing.

But what happens when the viewer at home encounters these expletive-laced speeches on their TVs or the Internet? Some viewers take it personally, taking it as classless, or moral degradation; I would argue they’re only thinking of the historically sexual meaning of the word “fuck.” But both Garcetti and Biden (along with Bono at the Golden Globes) used “fucking” as an intensifier, not as a sexual obscenity. Yet most swear words are used connotatively (to convey emotion).

The Federal Communications Commission waffles on what to do about Garcetti-style “fleeting expletives.” Fox Sports apologized for Garcetti’s “inappropriate” speech but it’s not clear if Fox will be fined by the FCC. (My best guess: probably not, since Obama’s commissioners are dovish on profanity.) The FCC ruled less liberally during the Bush years when conservatives had more sway. It’s interesting that people don’t complain as much about alcohol ads in professional sports. Alcohol can kill you, but swearing won’t; swearing might even help you cope with life’s stressors, according to recent research.

Older generations who are less understanding of technology may perceive that profanity represents a change in language or societal habits, even when that is not the case. Swearing by people in positions of power has always been there; it just used to be better hidden. We have to learn to accept that we are now going to hear more Garcettis.

And there’s something else you might have noticed. The day after any swearing incident nothing happens. No one has to be hospitalized or medicated. Yes, sensibilities may get jangled, but coping with slight deviations from the expected is part of life. No one, not even your mother, dies from hearing “fuck.”

Timothy Jay is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has published numerous books and chapters on cursing, and a textbook for Prentice Hall on The Psychology of Language. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Careers & Workplace

10 Words People Who Lack Confidence Always Use

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A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

Want to avoid giving the impression you lack confidence and authority? Avoid these words


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.

Nine-hundred and seventy-two.

That’s the total number of e-mails I received just in May, and it’s about my average. That’s not counting the hundreds and hundreds of messages Gmail dumped into categories for promotional mail, forum posts, and social networking updates. I’ve become proficient at jumping through messages quickly (using the J and K keys), but there’s one thing I’ve mastered even more than that: spotting a lack of confidence.

I also take quite a few cold calls–people who are not really sure what I do and have not really done too much research but have me on a phone list for some reason.

In most cases, it’s a pitch about a product or someone asking a question about marketing to journalists. He or she might say he or she “usually” does something. In a few cases, it’s someone with a business idea he or she “suspects” will be perfect. Most of the time, these messages are straightforward–the sender isn’t messing around. But a few seem hesitant. I fire back a question, and the response makes me question the person’s authority on the subject.

These words are not always triggers about confidence level, but they are my first signal that something is amiss. They make me think the sender is not that sure about the product or service. And they are dead giveaways that I need to question what the person says.

1. Might

Be careful when you tell people you “might” do something. Are you sure about that? No one is asking you to solve world peace. When you say you “might” finish a report, it implies you lack some ability, don’t manage your time well, or have too many priorities.

2. Won’t

Here’s an obvious word to avoid in your emails. Anyone who says he or she “won’t” do something or “won’t” attend a meeting is generating a negative vibe. Be more decisive: Either accept an invitation or reject it; using the word won’t suggests hesitancy.

3. Usually

This is a trigger word in email that makes it obvious to everyone that you don’t have all the facts. If you say the accounting department “usually” doesn’t approve your expense report or the boss is “usually” late to work, it means you’re stretching the truth.

4. Suspect

Unless you are talking about a suspect in a trial, avoid saying you “suspect” anything. You’re not Sherlock Holmes. Just use direct terms: You know an investor is pulling out of the project, and here’s why; or you have facts to support your conclusion on a new marketing plan.

5. Impossible

I’ll bet Mark Zuckerberg has never used the word impossible in an email. The recipient will lose confidence in you quickly. State why something might be hard or difficult or just don’t agree to a course of action. Don’t bother telling people it’s impossible.

6. Worried

We all worry about the stresses of life. Telling people you are worried by email makes it seem as if you lack confidence in your abilities. If you are worried, don’t bother saying that to anyone–just express what you are concerned about and offer solutions.

7. Confused

Expressing your confusion will create even more confusion. It’s better to just say what you are confused about and ask questions. Saying you are “confused” gives people the impression that either you don’t understand something or that the topic is confusing to you.

8. Need

We all have needs in life. When you express those needs by email over and over again, it makes you look needy. I “need” you to come to work early, I “need” you to get that report done. Avoid saying “need” and express requirements more directly.

9. Quandary

Have you sent a message and said you were in a “quandary”? You should know that the word means you are in a total state of perplexity. I mean, you are really perplexed. That’s not often the case when it comes to a new business proposal or fundraising round.

10. Likely

Few of us are in the business of predicting the future. If you say something is “likely” in an email, you are expressing to the recipient that you are not really sure about the topic, and you don’t have all the facts yet. It’s likely that you just lack confidence.

More from Inc:

The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

7 Ways to Lose Friends and Your Influence at Work

The Seemingly Harmless Act That Leads to High Employee Turnover

Simple Ways to Deal With Negative People

How to Be More Likable in 10 Easy Steps

TIME language

You’ll Never Guess the Real Name for a Hashtag

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Computer hashtag Richard Goerg—Getty Images

Nope, it isn’t “pound sign”

The word hashtag has officially been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED announced in a blog post Friday. But that’s not the most exciting thing in its announcement.

The word hashtag denotes the symbol deployed in front of a word or phrase on social media to loop the post into a wider conversation on the topic but it has #already taken on a #life of its own, used in #some #cases as a self-referential #joke or to #make #fun of #people whose social posts are #so2011.

But you, sophisticated TIME reader, already knew all of that. What you may not have known is that there was already a word for hashtag. And it isn’t the “number sign” or the “pound sign,” as it was called back in the #DarkAges before Twitter.

The technical term for a hashtag is “octothorp,” according to the OED; octo, in reference to the eight points in the figure, and Thorpe, OED says cryptically, from “the surname Thorpe.” Whatever that means.

“Hash probably arose as an alteration of ‘hatch’,” OED says in its blog post, “originally in the phrase ‘hatch mark’. By 1961 hash was being used in computing contexts to refer to the octothorp symbol, especially in computing and telecommunications contexts.”

#FarOut, right?

TIME Careers & Workplace

19 Words That Will Make People Like You More

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Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

Want to make a better first impression and engender positive feelings that last a long time? Focus on what you say as much as what you do


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.

First impressions can lead to lasting impressions. So to improve, a lot of people will tell you to dress better, read more (so you’ll have interesting things to talk about), and ensure that your online presence is respectable (because many people will check you out online before meeting in person).

But, how far will that get you? Despite what many people would like to believe, the things you say often make an even greater early impression than the things you do. To take advantage of that and get you started easily, here are 19 words–grouped into a handful of easy phrases–that you should make a habit of saying every day. They’re virtually guaranteed to improve your standing with others if you use them often enough.

Words No. 1 and 2: “Sir” and “ma’am”

American culture is pretty informal compared to many other places in the world, but a little bit of formality can really make you stand out in a positive way. I carry this inclination from the military, and also from having been a lawyer in the federal court system. These are environments in which people use the titles “Sir” and “Ma’am” constantly–not just in talking with high ranking military officers, but also addressing civilians.

I know that this doesn’t work in every situation, but using these titles can be a sign of respect that gets people’s attention. It can be important in professional relationships, especially when dealing with people you don’t know well, and who are older or more experienced than you.

Words No. 3 and 4: “You’re welcome.”

Sometime in fairly recent history it seems people stopped saying, “You’re welcome,” and started substituting, “Yep,” or, “No problem.” At the risk of sounding older than I am, I think this is a step in the wrong direction–at least in a business or professional setting.

Why? Because ditching “you’re welcome” for these other phrases changes the message. “You’re welcome” acknowledges that you’ve done something worth someone else’s thanks, while “no problem” suggests that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Saying the former phrase conveys that you think it was a worthwhile favor. That’s an impressive message to send.

Words No. 5 to 7: “Here’s what’s happening.”

If you’ve ever worked in an environment in which people guarded information like a valuable commodity, you’ll appreciate how much affinity you develop for the few people who try to keep everyone else accurately informed.

Of course you don’t want to be a know-it-all or spread rumors. However, even if you don’t know the full story, being willing to share the information you have that affects others’ lives can make you instantly more likable.

Words No. 8 to 11: “How can I help?”

Nobody accomplishes anything amazing alone. Thus, with the exception of the sociopaths among us, we’re all eventually grateful to those who help us achieve great things. I think we’re especially grateful to those who proactively try to help.

This doesn’t mean you have to go way out of your way to offer assistance, but it’s often the case that you have access to something or the ability to do something that won’t take much on your part, but that can really have a positive impact on someone else’s success.

Words #12 to 15: “I’ll find out.”

This is one of my favorite phrases. It’s related to “how can I help,” but is even more proactive. It says that you’re not only willing to offer assistance, but that you’re willing to go out of your way to do so.

(By the way, this helpful phrase is also the diametric opposite of the most bureaucratic phrase known to humankind, uttered incessantly by some of the least likable people: “That’s not my job.”)

Words No. 16 to 19: “I believe in you.”

Henry Ford recalled that when he was still an unknown, and was working on gasoline engines, a few short words of encouragement from an already famous Thomas Edison were a massive shot in the arm.

It’s amazing how just a little bit of validation from other people can inspire people to work harder and achieve more. Four short words can have a huge, positive impact–both for the people you’re encouraging, and for their feelings toward you .

Read more from Inc.com:

The Most Important Success and Happiness Rules I’ve Learned From My Mom

The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

Steve Jobs’s 13 Most Inspiring Quotes

17 Things Happy People Say Every Day

12 Words That Will Change Everything You Think About Entrepreneurship

TIME language

Here’s What to Say to That Jerk Who Corrects Your Grammar

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Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images / Vetta

A new book fights back against the marauding bands of linguistic snobs who want to make it clear how much smarter than you they are

Skip downward to go straight to the dirty tips and tricks.

Have you ever had a preening pedant correct you when you split an infinitive? Has a self-righteous scold kindly let you know that one thing cannot be “more unique” than another? Perchance you’ve had to sit through an apocalyptic screed about how young people are becoming illiterates, mutilating an English language that was once so revered—about how the day is nigh when we shall all just drool to each other through the Twitter!

Well, there is now a book full of ways that you can tell such people to put it where the sun don’t shine. Or at least let them know it ain’t nothing. Bad English, on sale June 3 from Perigree, is a 255-page takedown of linguistic snobbery—detailing the ways people are being hypocritical and arbitrary when they insist on a strict adherence to rules they learned in high school.

“You frequently hear people say, before attacking you, that they care about language,” says author Ammon Shea. “We all care about language. To me that seems like euphemistic shorthand for saying ‘I like to correct the language use of others,’ which I have always found unseemly.”

And so he dug through the centuries of history that led to these rules—like when one must use disinterested vs. uninterested—finding that, often as not, those rules used to be completely different than what they are today. Along the way he debunks linguistic factoids, like the assertion that Shakespeare invented 10% of the words he used, and defends unlikely, oft-maligned characters like Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and people who say like a lot.

On one level, of course, this fine book is just pedantry of one sort undermining pedantry of another sort. But Shea’s deeper message is that language isn’t fixed—and that inventiveness and playfulness, whether in the form of combining words, or using emoticons, or plopping because into an entirely new grammatical construction, should be celebrated rather than stifled. He also hopes that it “will relieve many of us of the vague yet persistent unease that we are doing something improper.”

“Telling people that they are wrong in a malicious fashion is useless,” says Shea, who has also written a book about his quest to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. “What would be helpful to acknowledge is not only are some of these rules incredibly capricious, they’re also constantly changing … The thing that is oft overlooked is that as language changes, the rules that govern it change as well.”

Here are some examples of the many of the comebacks you can use next time some jerk corrects your grammar or word usage:

“Stop saying like so much. It’s meaningless.”

Shea explains that while like might be a staple of the Valley girl caricature, the word is actually performing useful linguistic duties:

  • In the sentence “She was like, ‘Get out of my face,” the word signals the beginning of a quote and is known as a quotatative compartmentalizer.
  • In the sentence “It’s going to take me like forever to get there,” it functions as an approximative adverb, signaling how strongly to interpret the following word; almost and barely play similar roles.
  • In the sentences “I stole a panda. Like, I couldn’t live without him,” like is a discourse marker, a word used at the beginning of a sentence indicating that a clarification of what has just been said will now be given; one might similarly use I mean to introduce more information.

Like, BOOM.

“Don’t say something is ‘more unique.’ That’s like saying it’s ‘most best.’’”

The notion behind this common correction is that unique means something is truly one-of-a-kind, which a thing either is or is not, without degree—just like someone is the best or they are not the best. This word, Shea explains, does come from the Latin unicus, meaning one-of-a-kind, but when people started to widely use it in the 1800s, the meaning quickly broadened. In 1816, celebrated poet Sir Walter Scott wrote that celebrated satirist Jonathan Swift was “more unique” than any of his contemporaries. Today, dictionaries have largely relented. In a third definition, Merriam-Webster defines unique as simply “unusual.”

“You shouldn’t start sentences with and or but.”

This grievous error is committed no fewer than eight times in a little document called the Constitution. For those of a more religious bent, it may be worth pointing out that this sin is all over the Bible. The use of and to begin a sentence, Shea found, dates back to the year 855. And writers have been giving these conjunctions top billing ever since. Tell the next person precious about conjunction placement to put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means you don’t give a hoot.”

Fun fact: these words originally meant the exact opposite things that semantic samurai insist that they do now. Tracing the uses back to the 1600s, Shea explains that interchanging them didn’t seem to bother anyone for decades, until the “two met at some sort of unholy semantic swap meet and secretly agreed to change meanings.” Only in relatively modern times have grammarians found the mix-up to be cause for slapping the ruler on the desk.

“Potato is spelled sans ‘e.’”

“Dan Quayle,” Shea writes, “died for your sins”: Everyone now knows, because he was so pilloried for misspelling potato in public, how to spell that word. But potatoe, the albatross around the former vice president’s neck, was actually in use, in print, throughout the 20th century, appearing in such sources as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. Shea blames the joke-butting of Quayle on partisan politics and the tendency of those on the left to deride the intellectual abilities of those on the right.

“Only uneducated people split infinitives.”

An infinitive verb is the form with to in the front like, “to be” or “not to be.” Some traditionalists become apoplectic when an adverb is slipped between those two words, like “to boldly go.” But Shea discovered that infinitives have been split since the thirteenth century and that the reason we have this proscription today is because some grumpy grammarians from the 1800s decided that verbs would sound more like Latin, in which it is impossible to split infinitives, if they stayed in one piece. But, Shea points out, Chaucer has split, Shakespeare has split, and not to split sometimes just sounds terrible.

After all, while Shea acknowledges that some rules are useful and that standards have a time and place, he recommends that we let our ears be our guide—and if we can still understand somebody who is speaking in an heretic manner, we might take time to think about it rather than judge it.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

TIME language

Sterling, Rubio and the Art of Making Things Worse

Donald Sterling speaking—never a good idea
Donald Sterling speaking—never a good idea Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

The only thing that gets you into bigger trouble than saying the wrong thing is to keep saying it again and again. The owner of the L.A. Clippers and the junior senator from Florida need to learn the wisdom of just shutting up

Would somebody please get Donald Sterling away from the microphone—and while you’re at it, take Marco Rubio with you? The current (and, please, soon to be former) owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and the junior Senator from Florida have been taking a lot of heat lately for comments that were inartful at best and head-poundingly stupid at worst. In the case of Sterling, it was the no-go topic of race that landed him in trouble; in the case of Rubio it was anti-science nonsense on global warming. And when both men tried to rehab their reps, they broke the first rule any public figure should know: if you can’t make things better, shut up.

Sterling has offered nothing short of a cautionary clinic in how to do absolutely everything wrong when there’s a mess to clean up. After a recording was released of him telling his ex-girlfriend not to bring African Americans to Clippers games or to post pictures of herself with them on Instagram—despite the fact that the picture that set him off was of her and the globally loved Magic Johnson—he appeared with Anderson Cooper to explain himself and addressed the question of Johnson straightaway.

What kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV?” he asked. “Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. When he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him.”

He added this about Johnson’s work in the African American community: “[W]hat does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything. Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people, and some of the African-Americans—maybe I’ll get in trouble again—they don’t want to help anybody.”

So, not exactly damage control. Today, things got even worse, as yet another tape of Sterling surfaced in which he criticized President Obama for criticizing him: “I think that was such bad judgment on his part to make a flippant comment from Malaysia. He’s a good guy, and I like him, I just think everybody wants to get into the act, is that it?” Learning curve? Not so much.

Rubio is nowhere nearly so unhinged, but he did himself no favors either. After appearing on ABC News last weekend denying that “human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate,” and arguing that scientists have taken “a handful of decades of research and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend that’s directly and almost solely attributable to human activities,” he was predictably and deservedly blowtorched as both a political opportunist and a scientific know-nothing. So he traveled to the National Press Club to explain himself and made a hash of that too.

When he was asked by a moderator, “what information, reports, studies or otherwise are you relying on to inform and reach your conclusion that human activity is not to blame for climate change?” he came up empty, conjuring unwelcome memories of Sarah Palin, who drew a similar blank in 2008 when asked what newspapers she reads. “Well, again,” Rubio said, “headlines notwithstanding, I’ve never disputed that the climate is changing, and I’ve pointed out that climate to some extent is always changing, it’s never static.”

Much worse, he once again played the game of making up things climate scientists never, ever say, and then happily refuting them. “If we ban all coal in the U.S.,” he said, “if we ban all carbon emissions in the United States, will it change the dramatic changes in climate and these dramatic weather impacts that we’re now reading about? And anyone who says that we will is not being truthful.” Good thing no one is saying that then—except, of course, Rubio.

What gets into these guys’ heads is not clear. As with all powerful people—and, in particular, all powerful men—narcissism is surely a part of it. Live your life as a cosseted rich man like Sterling, or rise to a position of extreme prestige and power as a young man, like Rubio, and you begin to believe the rules don’t apply to you—because they often don’t. It’s similar to the tendency of professional athletes—who were often waved through high school and college regardless of poor grades and were then rewarded with eight-figure contracts at the age of 22—to get into so much trouble off the field. Why should DUI or domestic abuse laws apply to them any more than academic ones?

Sometimes it might be cultural obtuseness that’s to blame too. Sterling, 80, grew up in an era in which racial comments that are jaw-dropping today were the stuff of common conversation. Or it may be inexperience. Rubio is only 42, he’s been in the Senate for just over three years and he’s been talked about as a presidential contender for most of that time. The mistakes he’s making in that kind of pressure cooker are not the ones savvier, older campaigners like Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush would make.

Whatever the cause, the advice is almost always a variation on the “measure twice, cut once” dictum carpenters live by. Think about what you’re going to say, then think about it again, then maybe—maybe—speak. Trying to unsay something is always harder than never having said it in the first place.

TIME Careers & Workplace

20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible

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A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

Easy to get wrong. And easy to get 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.

My recent post, 30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible, sparked a flurry of emails requesting more examples.

So here they are. While there are hundreds of incorrectly used words, I’ve picked words commonly used in business settings.

Here we go:

1. Anticipate

“We anticipate earnings will increase by $1 per share.”

No you don’t. 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 you’re estimating or wishful guessing, use estimate or expect instead. Or, if you live where I live, use “reckon.” It’s 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. That’s different from mediate: a mediator doesn’t 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 can’t 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 isn’t the word itself; it’s 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 can’t grow. A bottleneck can’t get bigger. A bottleneck can’t expand. A bottleneck can cripple productivity, but it can’t 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 I’m 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 shouldn’t.

6. Collusion

Many people use collusion as a fancy way to imply cooperation or collaboration. Collusion does mean to cooperate or work together–but towards a result that is deceitful, fraudulent, or even illegal.

That’s why you probably never want to refer to yourself as colluding in, well, anything.

7. Defective

A machine that doesn’t work properly is defective. A process that doesn’t achieve a desired result is defective. When a machine doesn’t work properly because it’s missing a key component, it’s 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 you’re focusing on the missing skill and not the employee), but leave defective to discussions of inanimate objects.

Even if an employee doesn’t work properly, in context it sounds pretty harsh.

8. Germane

Germane is the same as relevant. Each shows that something applies.

But don’t mistake germane (or relevant) with material. A material point helps make a position or argument complete; it’s essential. A point germane to the discussion may be interesting, and even worth saying… but it’s not essential.

Think of it this way. In meetings we often get bored when people raise germane points/ they’re (mildly) interesting but often unnecessary. We listen when people raise material points–because 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

Here’s a word that appears in many dictionaries simply because it’s 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.

So save yourself one syllable or two keystrokes and just say “regardless.”

11. Libel

Don’t like what people say about you?

Like slander, libel refers to making a false statement that is harmful 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.)

Keep in mind what makes a statement libelous or slanderous is its inaccuracy, not its harshness. No matter how nasty a tweet, if it’s factually correct it cannot. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation–you might wish a customer hadn’t 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 bill.

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 you’re doing great, right? Nope–since 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 you’re 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 basis.

Here’s a better approach. Use statistics or facts. Or just say “most” or “nearly all.” Then you won’t 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 aren’t all breakthroughs new? “Acme Inc. sets new sales records.” By definition aren’t all records new? “Acme Inc. creates new social media sharing platform.” By definition aren’t 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 usable–think flip phones–they 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 you’re negotiating a loan with a listed interest rate of 6% and the lender says he’ll reduce the rate by 1%. Strictly speaking that means he’ll 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, you’re hoping for a reduction of 1 percentage point.

Most of the time the difference isn’t 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 you’re signing a contract or agreement… make sure you know the difference in meaning–and approve of the difference.

17. Successfully

Here’s 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 wouldn’t tell us.

18. Total

Total is another word used redundantly to add emphasis. “We were totally surprised by last month’s sales,” sounds more significant than, “We were surprised by last month’s sales,” but a surprise is either unexpected or it’s not. (I suppose you could be a little surprised, but that’s 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 plural, which requires “were.” (As in, “A total of six months were spent developing the app.”)

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.” Doesn’t 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 aren’t signing it yet because you’re hesitant.

So hey, feel free to waver to sign that waiver. Your instincts just might be correct.

Read more from Inc.com:
How 4 Entrepreneurs Started Up (Really) Young
Firing an Employee–Even a Bad One–Is Hard to Do

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