9 misunderstood words—and how to use them

If you confuse ‘compliment’ for ‘complement’ or don’t know how to use ‘flout’ in a sentence, you’re not alone. Here’s a guide to help you out.

How often do you spot words that are used improperly?

Maybe it’s “home” instead of “hone” or “less” when “fewer” would be correct. Usage mistakes are common and can damage the credibility of your message and your organization. That’s why it’s important to know your definitions.

Below are nine words with misunderstood and misused meanings.

How many have you been using correctly? (Definitions and usage guidance came from Oxford Dictionaries, Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster.)

1. Complement

Complement means to add to or complete. It can also mean the quantity, number or assortment required to make something complete. Complement is not the same as compliment, which is an expression of esteem or respect. Don’t confuse it with complimentary, which means favorable or free.

The information on this website is meant to complement class lectures.
I have the full complement of travel guides for Scotland.

Let me compliment you on your stunning ensemble.

2. Facetious

Facetious means flippant or treating a serious issue with inappropriate humor. People often use facetious when they mean sarcastic, which refers a cutting, ironic remark meant to insult.

I don’t appreciate your facetious attitude about punctuation.

3. Farther

Farther— which refers to physical distance—is often used interchangeably with further. This is incorrect, as further refers to advancing or addition to a process.

My new house is farther from the office.

I hope to further involve myself in publishing by living in New York City.

4. Flout

To flout is to disregard a rule or custom. It is often confused with flaunt, which means to show off or display pretentiously.

Nate flouted the rules by calling in sick every Monday.

Megan loved to flaunt her vocabulary by using complex words in everyday conversation.

5. Home

When used a verb, home means to return to a specific location or reach a specific target. It is usually followed by “in” or “on.”

The conference attendees homed in on the nearest bar.

Don’t confuse home with hone, which means to sharpen, perfect, or master a skill.

6. Lightening

Lightening is not the same thing as lightning. Lightening means to illuminate or to make something lighter or clear. It can also mean to relieve a burden or reduce weight. Lightning is what occurs during thunderstorms.

Can you lighten that in Photoshop?

Once the new content management system is installed, it will lighten our workload considerably.

7. Pike

I once had a co-worker who constantly talked about projects “coming down the pipe.” It should be pike, as in turnpike.

Given Danielle’s departure, it’s hard to tell what will be coming down the pike.

8. Poisonous

Poisonous—often confused with venomous—means a plant, animal or substance capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body. Venomous means capable of injecting venom.

A rattlesnake is not itself poisonous, because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous, but not venomous.

9. Rein

Not to be mistaken for reign, rein means to control, direct or restrain. It can also mean the controlling or curtailing of power.
Reign refers to having sovereign power or authority or to have control, rule or influence.

We need to rein in the efforts by HR that require all staff to read “Who Moved My Cheese?”

During his reign as CEO, our company had become “Animal Farm.”

How about you, PR Daily readers? What misunderstood words would you add to this list?

Laura Hale Brockway is a regular contributor to PR Daily . Read more of her posts on writing, editing and corporate life at impertinentremarks.com.

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