Most of us have misused a word or phrase at one time or another--in a meeting, a written report, a conversation, or even in public speaking. Whether you find out about it right away or long after the fact, it's embarrassing to realize you've gotten something wrong, especially in front of people you were trying to impress.
Misusing language can hold you back professionally. In an age when we're all constantly communicating--and when many of the things we say live forever online--it's more important than ever to speak and write well.
A good place to start is by making sure you're avoiding commonly misused words and phrases. Here are 10 examples, some written and some verbal, all made by smart people. Learn from their mistakes as well as your own
1. "A piece of my mind" and "peace of mind."
These two phrases mean very different things. Giving someone a piece of your mind means speaking in anger or frustration, while peace of mind conveys assurance and comfort. If you're emailing your boss, a client, or a customer to give them peace of mind, make sure it doesn't include a piece of your mind.
2. "Should of" for "should have."
This phrase confuses countless people. The correct form, "should have," is often contracted in speech to "should've" or even "shoulda," which sounds like "should of"--but isn't. Mind your pronunciation and especially make sure you get it correct in writing.
3. "Make do" and "make due."
Here's another pair of phrases that sound almost identical but mean different things. When you make do, you are getting by with whatever you have. When you make due, you set a deadline. So if your boss has made something due but you don't have all the resources you need to get the job done, you might have to make do with what you have on hand.
4. "Flush it out" and "flesh it out."
Flushing out means clearing away what you don't need. Fleshing out means the opposite: you take the core of an idea and brainstorm to add detail. The distinction can be confusing, but not as confusing as getting them mixed up.
5. "I could care less" for "I couldn't care less."
The correct form for this expression of apathy is "I couldn't care less." Even though people use "could care less" often, if you think about it, what they're actually saying in that case is that they care more than they could--which is not apathetic at all.
6. "Doing good" and "doing well."
This is a sometimes tricky distinction. If you are doing good, you are giving to those around you--a useful way to remember it is that you're being a do-gooder. But when you do things properly or meet a high standard, you are doing well. Another useful phrase to remind you of the difference is the description of people who prosper by serving others: doing well by doing good.
7. "For all intensive purposes" for "for all intents and purposes."
It's possible to have an intensive purpose, although it's an odd way of describing it. The phrase in common use, "for all intents and purposes," means covering more or less all important angles or opinions. Its origins date back to 16th-century English law, which is why it sounds a bit formal.
8. "By in large" for "by and large."
Derived from two sailing terms, "by and large" means about the same thing as "generally." "Buy in large" isn't correct--unless maybe you're talking about what you did at a big sale.
9. "Shoe-in" for "shoo-in."
To describe someone or something as a "shoo-in" is saying they're certain to succeed, generally in a competitive situation. "Shoe-in" may sound the same, but in writing it's incorrect.
10. "Proceed" and "precede."
Both words are correct, so you have to make sure you're using the right one. To proceed is to move forward or continue a course of action; to precede is to come before something else in time. If you want someone to keep talking, ask them to proceed. If you plan to speak before that person, you will precede them in speaking.
These may seem like small distinctions, but they can make a huge difference in how you're perceived. Good communication is important especially when you are going for clarity, skillfulness, and competence in your personal and professional life.