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20 Common Words You Could Be Using Incorrectly

You hear them all the time-- but that doesn't mean they were used correctly.
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My recent post, 30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Bad, sparked a flurry of emails requesting more examples.

So here they are. Although 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, such as 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 (one hopes) 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 members, "You cannot 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 toward 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 as 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) for 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 correct only 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," works only 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 as if you're doing great, right? Nope. Because majority is defined as "the greater number," all you have said is that 51 percent of your customers are satisfied, which means 49 percent 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 as if almost all of them are behind you, when in fact nearly half might not be. "The majority of our shipments deliver on time" sounds as if 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 overuse 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 because 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 because 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 toward.

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 percent and the lender says he'll reduce the rate by 1 percent. Strictly speaking, that means he'll reduce the interest by 1 percent of 6 percent, or .06 percent. That means your new interest rate is 5.94 percent. Yippee.

Percent refers to a relative increase or reduction, while percentage point refers to the actual change in rate. If you want a 5 percent loan instead of a 6 percent 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 percent, 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 successfully launched our new product." Wait: In order to have launched, you have to have been successful. (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.

20. Would.
 
First two definitions. Would indicates the outcome of an imagined or theoretical event. Will indicates the future tense of something that is inevitable - in other words, something that is going to happen. Think of would as conditional and will as a promise. 
 
And that's why they almost never belong in the same sentence. "The project would be phased in over the next several months and will cost $3 million," mixes the theoretical with the factual. If it happens, itwould cost $3 million.
 
Here's the easy fix: don't mix would and will. Decide whether you're stating what is going to happen or what may happen. Then use would both times, or will both times. Then you're always safe.
IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: May 15, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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