9 words you’ve been using wrong this whole time

“Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately.”

Strunk and White 77

Whether you’re an advanced content strategist or fledgling word nerd, it’s easy to forget about one of the primary building blocks of our craft: grammar. I recently re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and was surprised at how many grammar and style rules I broke on a daily basis.

While I’m working on cleaning up my style in the background, here’s 9 words that are commonly misused in modern writing.

1. And/Or

I am guilty of using this in nearly 80% of my work emails. It (seemed to) function so nicely as a catch-all for situations where things could include or exclude certain variables. But as Strunk and White point out, it’s a sloppy shortcut that damages the clarity of the sentence. Does it include both? Or one or the other? Pick and or or (say that 3x fast) and leave the backslash in the editing trash.

Original: The party may include wine and/or whiskey.

Improved: The party may include wine or whiskey or both.

Also improved: The party may include wine and whiskey.

2. Among vs. Between

It had never occurred to me that these two words weren’t interchangeable. Instead I relied on my ear to determine which one I would use when indicating how people or things were involved with one another. However, it turns out there is a difference!

Among is used when describing the connection of two or more persons or things. E.g., the coffee cups were divided amongst the four baristas.

Between is used when describing the connection of just two persons or things. E.g., the macchiato was split between the husband and wife.

3. Comprise

The definition of comprise is “to contain or include”. So it’s imperative that you pay attention to how it affects the noun before it. A coffee shop is comprised of (includes) writers but writers do not comprise (contain) a coffee shop.

4. Disinterested  

Okay, this one in particular jumped out at me because, ladies and gents, I’ve been using it incorrectly for years! Disinterested means impartial or unbiased. But in everyday speech we tend to use it to mean “uninterested”. It makes sense–the prefix dis- is means “not”. Dislike=don’t like. Discontent=not content.

But this is not the case and you should only use disinterested when you want to say impartial or unbiased.

5. Flammable vs. Inflammable

Here’s a curveball for you–these are synonyms. That’s right! Flammable and inflammable both mean “to catch on fire.” It gets confusing because the prefix in– typically means “in, on, or not”. However, the word inflammable doesn’t use this prefix. It derives from the Latin word inflammare–to flame. If you’re a word nerd like me, you can read more about the history of the word on Merriam-Webster.

Regardless of your word nerd status, if you’re trying to say “can’t easily catch on fire” try incombustible or nonflammable.

6. Less

Very similar to the above note on Among vs. Between, less is more precise than just “not as many as before”. You should use the word less when referring to quantity and use the word fewer when referring to a specific number.  Here’s an example for each:

Less: There were less doughnuts than last time.

Fewer: There were three fewer doughnuts than last time.

7. Nauseous. Nauseated. Nausea.

You may have heard this one before–it’s one of those grammar rules that gets touted as an example of how much everyday language can deviate from a strict definition. Whether you’re on #teamcolloquialism or #teamformal, it’s important (and interesting!) to know the difference. So let’s break it down:

Nauseous→ causing nausea or disgust

Nauseated→ to become affected with nausea  

Nausea→ a stomach distress with an urge to vomit

So when we say, “I’m nauseous” we’re actually saying “I’m causing nausea or repulsion”. Doesn’t quite work right? Unless you are in fact doing something to cause repulsion. Instead say or write, “I’m nauseated” or “I have nausea”.

8. One

This one is perhaps antiquated, however it does pop up every so often. When using the word one to mean “a person” don’t follow up with a pronoun. Instead substitute the pronoun for one again. Here’s an example to clarify:

Typical sentence: One must always order their coffee black

Better sentence: One must always order one’s coffee black

Best sentence: You should always order your coffee black

Side note: the best sentence in that set of examples is so named because it uses an active voice and is more direct.

9. People

As people, we use this word almost every day. But did you know it also has a more precise meaning than just “several humans”? The word people means a collection of humans typically bound by a common interest. In most cases it has political connotations such as The People’s Republic of China.

When you’re trying to express a certain number of humans, it’s best to use persons. Here’s a good visual from Strunk and White:

“If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people are left? Answer: one people.”  (Strunk and White 56)

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Because sometimes our ears and common sense deceive us. And the above is not an exhaustive list. Grab Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and you’ll see the above is the only start. Happy writing!

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.


2 thoughts on “9 words you’ve been using wrong this whole time

  1. I still feel that you’ve missed the difference between less and fewer. Less is used when the thing being measured is indiscrete. Fewer is used when specific counts can be achieved.
    There was less – air in the tire – sand in the pail – water in the glass.
    There were fewer doughnuts in the box. 🙂
    Good article though.

    Like

    1. Oh I like that! In the above post I was paraphrasing Strunk and White, however feel your suggestion makes more sense. Look for an update soon and thank you for the feedback! I love word collaborations. 🙂

      Like

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