Better Business English: 16 Confusing Words and Phrases Clarified


 

Brass Tack Thinking - Better Business Englishbrasstackthinking.com
Ah, English.

That pesky language that trips us all up from time to time. The emergence of short form communication like texts and tweets isn’t helping our cause here. Neither is a decline in reading and reading comprehension.

Truly, how you speak and write leaves an impression, even if you’re only using 140 characters. No matter how much language evolves (and I agree that it does), some mistakes just make you sound sloppy at best and ignorant at worst.

Call me a word nerd or a grammar snob if you must, but I maintain that business communication is vital and doing it well is still important. That includes communication in email and on the web. And while all of the following examples are applicable to any kind of writing or speech, I’m especially keen to improve what I see and hear on the business front day in and day out.

So here are 16 words and phrases that seem to get misused and abused a great deal.

Have more? Add them in the comments.

Hear, Hear.

The phrase isn’t “here, here”.

“Hear, hear” originated in the British House of Commons and is a short form of the cheer for “hear him, hear him”. They don’t do applause much in Parliament, so this phrase is a substitute for that.

For all intents and purposes

The phrase is not “for all intensive purposes”. I suppose it’s possible that your purposes could be intense, but the right phrase is “intents and purposes”.

Et cetera

The abbreviation “etc.” when spelled out is “et cetera” not “ex cetera”. It’s Latin for “and the rest”. You might also run into “et al.”, which is an abbreviation of the Latin et alia and means “and others”. You need the period after “al.” to indicate that it’s an abbreviation.

Rein it in

Think horses. When you rein something in, you’re slowing it down or bringing it more under control. “Reign” is the word used to describe the rule of a monarch. Similarly, if you give someone “free rein”, you’re letting them have a bit of leeway, not giving them a throne or a kingdom.

In regard to

It should either be “as regards”, “with regard to”, or “in regard to”. “In regards to” is a popular misuse.

You and Me vs. You and I

First trick: The other person comes first in the sentence (think of it as good manners). So it would be correct to say “Susan and Me”, not “Me and Susan”. Now, as for whether you use “me” or “I”?

Second trick: Read the sentence without the other person in it, and see if it sounds right. For example: “Amber sent copies of her book to Susan and I”. Remove Susan, and you’re left with “Amber sent copies of her book to I.” Nope, that doesn’t work. Here, the proper personal pronoun is “me”.

Or “Jim and me went to the movies”. You wouldn’t say “Me went to the movies” unless you’re Cookie Monster, so here you’d use “I”.

Cite/Site/Sight

“Cite” means to reference, quote, or mention something. You’d cite an article or a blog post in your book, perhaps.

“Site” is a location. Construction site, site of the crime, even the virtual world of the web site.

“Sight” is either something that is seen (You’re a sight for sore eyes!), the act of seeing something (you might sight land in your binoculars), or even an aspiration (like setting your sights on a particular career goal). And by the way, you go “sightseeing”, not “siteseeing”.

Could Have/Should Have

The proper phrase is “could have” or “should have”, and the contraction is “could’ve”. In our patterns of speech in American English, both the phrase and the contraction sound like “could of” or “should of” when pronounced (and that’s likely why this confusion started in the first place) but they’re incorrect.

Couldn’t Care Less

If you could care less, that means you actually are capable of caring less, which isn’t what you’re going for when you’re driven to use this phrase. If the truth is that you can’t imagine caring any less than you do about something, the proper phrase is “couldn’t care less”.

Supposedly

Not “supposably”. Ever.

Enamored Of

This one isn’t nearly as common, but it crops up more than you might think. The correct phrase is actually “enamored of”, not “enamored by”. “Enamored with” is okay, but not necessarily preferred if you’re the grammar snot type. If you’re “enamored by” Justin Bieber, that actually means he’s all smitten with you, you lucky dog.

English is weird, I know.

Dialogue

A dialogue is a conversation or discussion. It’s a noun, a thing. You don’t “dialogue” with someone, you “have a dialogue”. Yes, I know it’s become common in business language to use dialogue as a verb. But it’s jargon and it sounds terrible in correspondence.

We could do a whole post on jargon, but for the moment, I digress.

Flesh out and Flush out

You “flesh out” an idea to add substance to it and develop it further. Think adding more flesh to the bone. You “flush out” the rabbit from the hedges or the ducks from the marsh or the criminal from his hiding place.

Gibe and Jibe (and Jive)

If your ideas don’t mesh well, they didn’t jibe (which means they didn’t agree). If they didn’t jive that probably means they needed a lot more rhythm and that guy from Airplane. A “gibe” is a joke or a tease.

Say Your Piece

If you’re about to “say your piece”, that means you’re about to speak aloud a piece of your writing or perhaps give a piece of your mind. You don’t “say your peace”.

At a wedding, you either “speak now or forever hold your peace”, which means to maintain your silence forever and ever. If you’re “holding your piece” I certainly hope you’re a police officer or in the privacy of your own home.

Cue and Queue

If you’re standing in line, you’re in a queue or “queuing up”. If you’re scheduling a post or piece of content, you’re “queuing it up” or “putting it in the queue”.  It’s such a strange word to look at and type, but it has French origins and is correct in these contexts when you mean to put something into a schedule or process.

Cues are things like pool sticks and indicators for actors to speak their parts.

Some Resources…

Your very best friend is Brians Common Errors in English Usage. Paul Brians is an Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University. It isn’t a sexy website, but this is a wonderful compilation of common errors in English usage. When in doubt, look it up here, save yourself the mistake and learn a little something in the process. It’s helped me — a bonafide word nerd — loads of times. Like I said, English is weird.

If you’d like an actual book, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a great standby. Some of the rules in there are pretty strict and traditional but it’s a wonderful and witty reference overall. Get the new graduate in your life a copy before they head off to college or their first job.

What other words and phrases do you get mixed up and confused? Which drive you batty when you hear or read them? Leave your examples and questions in the comments and we’ll get them sorted out!

P.S. – Just for fun, the first person who comments and correctly guesses the word in the post image that inspired me to use it gets a free copy of Strunk and White courtesy of yours truly.

 

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