Recently, I received a letter from a new private school opening in my
neighborhood. The letter asked parents to attend an open house session
more about the school.
It’s the kind of direct mail that we all receive, and the only reason I
paid attention to it was because of an error in the salutation. It read,
Prospective means “likely or expected to happen or likely to become or
be.” I’m already a parent and have been for many years. And so were most
people who received the letter, otherwise they would not have received
it. To address us “prospective parents” is wrong. To address us as
“prospective clients” or “parents of prospective students” would have
been correct, but awkward. In this case “Dear parent” would have been
Word choice can be tricky. The English language is full of words that
don’t mean what people think they mean or words that have subtle shades
are a few examples.
means opposed to or having a strong dislike of something. Example: "He was averse to the idea of using a new style guide."
is often confused with adverse, which means unfavorable or harmful. Ex.: "Report any adverse effects to your physician."
To comprise is to enclose or include. Comprise is used in the
active voice; therefore, “comprised of” is not correct. Ex.: "The
university comprises six colleges and nine divisions."
is often confused with compose, which means to make up or be a
constituent of. Compose can be used in the passive voice. Ex.: "The
company is composed of 14,000 employees."
is often used incorrectly as a synonym for infer. To imply is to speak indirectly or suggest.Ex.: "You are implying that changing the style guide is our only alternative."
To infer is to surmise or conclude. Ex.: "I infer from your statement that you agree with this solution."
is often confused with fewer. Use less to refer to quantities that can’t be counted and fewer
to refer to numbers. "There were less people in the office today" is
incorrect, because people can be counted. "There were fewer people in
the office today" is
— often confused with venomous — means a plant, animal, or substance capable of causing death or illness if one comes into contact with it. 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,
In science and medical writing, precision is how close a set of measured values are to each other. Precision is often confused with
accuracy, which means how close a measured value is to the true value.
Confused? As explained on Mathisfun.com, “If you are playing soccer and you always hit the left goal post instead of
scoring, then you are not accurate, but you are precise.”
should not be confused with then. Than is a conjunction used to compare things. Ex.: "Editing is easier said than done."
has several meanings, but none of them are comparative. In general, then is used in relation to time and the order in which events occur. Ex.: "I would like to meet for drinks, then have dessert."
is not a synonym for wording, content or language. It means an excess of
words; wordiness or verbosity. Ex: "Most press release quotes are
riddled with irrelevant verbiage."
Ragan readers, care to share any other commonly misunderstood words?
[RELATED: Revive your writing chops, grab the attention of a distracted audience and tell great stories across media channels.]
Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.