Words are powerful things. Wield them skillfully and people are more likely to perceive you in a positive light. Speak or write poorly, however, and people may judge you in an instant as being unintelligent, uneducated, or lacking in credibility. Here are several commonly misused words and expressions to get straight, with the version to avoid in bold.

1. A mute point

Mute means silent, so would you really want to make a point that doesn't say anything? A point that is "moot" is debatable or doubtful. So, while these words may seem like close cousins, a point can be moot, but not mute. Note the "u" in "mute" sounds like "you."

2. Overuse of "literally"

Some people throw this word around as an embellishment to intensify whatever they're trying to say. But "literally" means "actually" or "in a strict sense." So, if you say, "My head literally exploded," you would be lying. Don't do this.

3. Expresso

The strong coffee drink brewed into a tiny cup is pronounced with an "s" in the first syllable and written "espresso."

4. Jive with the facts

An astute Inc. reader takes issue with this incorrectly phrased idiom in response to last month's "20 Embarrassing Phrases Even Smart People Misuse." Jive can be defined as a colorful form of speaking, or as referring to certain kinds of jazz or swing music. Since "jibe" means "to agree," the correct phrase would be "jibe with the facts."

5. "For-tay" for forte

A co-worker busted me on this one years ago, and although I mentally pegged the guy as a snob, I never made the mistake again. Basically, if you're trying to say that something is or isn't your talent, the technically correct way to pronounce "forte" is "fort." The only problem: Lots of people understand what you're trying to communicate if you pronounce it "for-tay," which is incorrect. So, if you use the correct version you'll sound intelligent to the grammarians of the world but you risk alienating a certain percentage of people who will not understand your meaning. My approach: Avoid "forte" altogether and say, "It's not my strength."

6. I seen

Maybe you're scratching your head at this one because it's an elemental grammar mistake but I'm surprised at how often I hear "I seen" coming out of college-educated people's mouths. If using these two words together is your bad habit, make a mental note to never utter them again. It should be "I saw," as in, "I saw him walk into the office."

7. Eccetera

Pronounce "etcetera" exactly how it is spelled. For some reason, plenty of people bristle when a speaker drops the "t."

8. Improperly-used apostrophes

This one covers a lot of ground. Just remember: Much of the time, an apostrophe indicates letters or numbers are missing. For example, "it's" means the same thing as "it is" except the second "i" is missing in the contraction. However, the word "its"--with no apostrophe because all letters are accounted for--involves ownership or possession, as in "the dog licked its paws."

9. More improperly-used apostrophes

Another example: "who's" (meaning "who is") versus "whose," which indicates ownership. And if "they're/their/there" gives you trouble, you can get at least one of the three right by recalling the something-went-missing-so-you-need-an-apostrophe rule, noted above. "They're" is the same as "they are." The "a" is gone, hence, the apostrophe.

10. Even more improperly-used apostrophes

People trip when things go missing with years, as well. For example, if you wanted to reference the decade famous for big hair without writing it out, it would be correct to write "the '80s." Note the apostrophe indicates "1" and "9" are missing, and since nothing is missing after the zero, there's no apostrophe on the tail end. In other words, "the 80's" is wrong.

What grammatical errors annoy you most?

Published on: Apr 16, 2015