Words We Get Wrong: The List

We speak and write well most of the time.

There are, however, words and phrases that trip us up. Listeners, readers and our colleagues cringe at the mistakes.

This is going to be a living post. We’re starting with some of the common mistakes. There are some links to where you can get help on the proper usages. We’ll add to the list as suggestions — perhaps we should say “complaints” – come in. The hope is that if the problem cases are identified, they’ll become less common as times goes on.

– Advance planning: One of many pleonasms we should avoid.

Anniversary: It is redundant to say “one-year” or “five-year” or “10-year” … “anniversary.”

– Begs the question: If you think that means “raises the question,” you will incur the wrath of dozens or more audience members.

– But: It’s a little word we use far too often and in ways we shouldn’t.

-- Countless: Do you really mean there are “too many to count?” Or that there’s an “indefinitely large number?” Should you be saying “hundreds” or “thousands?”

– Data: At NPR, we use plural verbs and pronouns when referring to data — unless, that is, we’re confident we’re using the word as a collective noun. Tip: If you can substitute the word “information,” that’s a sign you’re using “data” as a collective noun. If the word “numbers” is the proper substitute, than you need plural verbs and pronouns.

– Farther and further: Use “farther” when discussing distances. “Further” is for issues involving matters of degree.

– Fewer or less? Do you choose your supermarket based on what the sign says over the express aisle? Some people do. “Fewer” is the word to use when things can be counted. “Less” is to be used when when you’re talking about mass quantities.

– Interpreters and translators: An interpreter turns spoken words into another language. A translator works with written words.

– Lay and lie: Stop and check yourself before choosing between these words. Go here or here. At the very least, remember this: You lay down a book; you lie down to rest.

– Lecterns and podiums: You stand on a podium. You put your notes on a lectern, which you sit or stand behind.

– Marine, sailor, soldier: A Marine is not a soldier or a sailor. A sailor is not a Marine or a soldier. A soldier is not a sailor or a Marine. Be careful when referring to them.

– Media: NPR treats “media” as a plural.

– Percent and percentage point: When comparing changes in two percentages, the difference is expressed in “percentage points.” For example, if 36% of Little Valley Central School’s class of ’76 show up at next year’s reunion, that will be an increase of 5 percentage points from the 31% turnout 10 years ago. Attendance, though, will go up 15%. That’s because the 15 who come next year would mark a 15% increase from the 13 who attended in ’06.

– Reticent and reluctant: They do not mean the same thing. Webster’s defines reticent as “habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn” and “having a restrained, quiet or understated quality.”

– Shrink, shrank and shrunk; sink, sank and sunk: William Safire weighed in on these words back in 1995.  Tip: The movie should have been called “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”

– Vast majority: The best advice is to just not say it. You’ll probably be wrong. Use facts instead.

(Memmos; Nov. 3, 2015)

November 3, 2015

Comments are closed.