By the Oxford English Dictionary’s best guess, the English language contains more than a quarter of a million words. And, while scholars and researchers disagree wildly, most concede that the average intelligent person knows somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 of them.
Of course, there’s a difference between knowing 10,000 words and knowing the precise shades of meaning that differentiate one from another, which explains why people choose a word that doesn’t say what they mean. There are also those tricky words that look a lot like others, and your trusty spellchecker won’t know you really meant something else.
When it comes to business writing — whether it’s your website, your advertising, a memo to the sales staff, or a letter of agreement with a prospective partner — choosing the wrong words can dramatically alter the meaning of what you develop. Just as important, they can lead the recipient to believe that you’re not very bright (or are simply careless).
For example, as an announcer at a local radio station read a commercial for a law firm, she noted that they handle “litigation, arbitration, and meditation.” My mind instantly conjured a circle of lotus-positioned lawyers chanting “ommm.” (Of course, she meant “mediation,” which isn’t usually quite as calming.)
While many words get used in the wrong places, there are some I see far more often than others in business writing. Those that follow represent some of the easiest mistakes to make — and avoid.
Assure/ensure/insure. Many people use these interchangeably. Although they’re similar, there are subtle differences. “Ensure” means to “make sure,” “assure” is to provide a degree of confidence, and “insure” is to prepare for a hazard (usually financially). I assured my partner that I would ensure that the new equipment was properly insured.
Disinterested/uninterested. You’ll often hear someone such as a mediator described as an “uninterested” party in a matter that’s under dispute, but that’s the wrong word. “Uninterested” means just what it sounds like — you aren’t interested in anything about the matter. If you’re a neutral party with no stake in a decision, then you’re a “disinterested” party.
Economic/economical. Businesses will talk about their “economic” pricing or tell you that they’re offering an “economic” deal. In reality, they mean “economical,” because that word is a synonym for thrifty, frugal, or making careful use of resources such as money. Something that is “economic” deals with the larger economy.
Flounder/founder. You’ll hear people say that failing companies are floundering, but that’s usually not quite accurate. Beyond describing a type of fish, to “flounder” means to flop around without any sense of direction or purpose. The word that describes a sinking ship or a company that’s on its last legs is “foundering,” without the l. The company is foundering because its president floundered about with important decisions.
Apprise/appraise. When you “apprise” someone, you share information; when you “appraise” them, you measure their worth or performance. I apprised the CEO of the sales manager’s performance appraisal.
Infer/imply. Choosing the right word here depends upon the direction of the conversation. If someone is telling you something and you do the mental arithmetic that lets you draw an additional conclusion, what you’ve just done is “infer.” On the other hand, if you tell someone about something and you convey another message without saying it, you’ve just “implied” it. His comments about healthcare implied that he objected to Obama’s plan, so I inferred that he was a Republican.
Contingent/contingency. These two have the same roots, but they’ve grown to have very different meanings. A “contingent” is a group of people, typically representing a larger group, while a “contingency” is something that might happen and for which you should be prepared. The contingent from the Minneapolis office asked that the plan include a contingency for snowstorms.
Levy/levee. A “levy” is usually a tax or a similar type of assessment, while a “levee” is a wall or berm designed to protect an area from flooding. The county will levy an additional amount to pay for the new levee.
Assume/presume. When you “assume,” (beyond the hackneyed joke that so many people think you’ve never heard) what you do is suspect that something is true even though you don’t have any proof. “Presuming” is subtly different, because it says that you’ve firmly decided something is true because you haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.
Regardless/irregardless. Only one of these words is real. “Irregardless” is not a word in English. Period. Yes, people use it, but they shouldn’t — largely because “regardless” does a perfectly good job of saying what it is they’re trying to say.
Jive/jibe. “Jive” is sometimes used to describe an attempt to cheat, or it’s the dialect that Barbara Billingsley spoke so effortlessly in the movie “Airplane!” Neither meaning really has a place in business, so you probably meant to use “jibe,” which means to agree with.
Serve/service. Of all the misused words, this is the one that drives me the craziest. For some reason, many businesspeople don’t like to use the word “serve,” although it’s a perfectly appropriate word. Instead, they reach for a two-syllable option that they believe means the same thing, namely “service.” Unfortunately, they really don’t mean the same thing. You can service a car or a computer, if you’re providing maintenance. But as for people and companies, that’s a different story.
You see, there’s a huge difference between servicing a customer and providing a service to that customer, and it’s more than a cranky writer splitting hairs. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows the difference. You borrow the neighbor’s bull specifically so it can service your cows, with the end result being a larger herd. That’s what it means to service someone.
Been using phrases like “we serviced 10,000 customers last year” or “thanks for the opportunity to service you” in your writing? Can you see why you might want to reconsider?