Common words that don’t mean what you think they do

Did you know that ‘convince’ and ‘persuade’ aren’t interchangeable? Neither are ‘anticipate’ and ‘expect,’ and a few other pairs you probably never imagined you were using incorrectly.

Most of us communicators are self-professed word nerds.

We hold strong opinions about whether to use the Oxford comma. We poke fun at Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” because none of her examples of irony are, in fact, ironic. We silently—yet lovingly—judge our friends who say they “literally ate all the food at Thanksgiving” because, well, they didn’t.

Although we might have a stronger command of English than our friends and relatives, we aren’t impervious to mistakes.

I’m reminded of this often. When Ragan Communications’ executive editor, Rob Reinalda, edits my writing, he also imparts helpful grammar and usage tips. This includes pointing out words and phrases that don’t mean what I—and probably many others—think they mean.

A few examples are below. Are you ready to eat some humble pie?

1. Anticipate/expect

Anticipate seems straightforward, but there’s more to its usage than simply expecting or awaiting something. To anticipate entails preparation.

According to the AP Stylebook, “Anticipate means to expect and prepare for something; expect does not include the notion of preparation.”

So, you would say, “I anticipate 15 people will come to my New Year’s Eve party, so I should buy more confetti poppers,” or simply, “I expect 15 people will come to my New Year’s Eve party.”

2. Convince/persuade

Though convince and persuade seem interchangeable, they aren’t.

The difference is that you convince people of ideas, but you persuade them to take action. The easiest way to remember this is with this handy mnemonic device: The “i” in convince is for ideas; the “a” in persuade is for action.

So, I convince you that it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but I persuade you to go to the gym with me every week.

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3. Need to/have to

Communications experts like to say that we need to focus on certain PR trends or post to social media at specific times of day.

We don’t need to do those things. Perhaps we should or must do them, but they don’t fulfill a basic human need, such as breathing oxygen or drinking water.

Unless you frequently write about a body’s physical needs, you’ll rarely use need to in your writing. Substitute should, must, ought to or have to instead.

4. Since/because and while/although

Nope, these word pairs are not interchangeable.

Use since and while to refer to time. For example, you would say, “Since the store opened in 2005, sales have improved every year.” Or, “While the coffee brewed, I caught up with my cubemate.”

Use because to show cause and effect. For example, “I vacationed in San Diego because my friend recommended it.”

Consider this: “Since she served on the Library Board, she read a book a week.” Does that mean her dedication to the library increased her literary intake, or that once she had shed those duties, she had more time to devote to reading? Substitute because or after in such cases for greater clarity.

Use although and while when you mean to say “despite the fact that…”

Take this example from earlier in this story: “Although we might have a stronger command of English than our friends and relatives, we aren’t impervious to mistakes.”

That might bring me to…

5. Might/may

As Reinalda says, “May denotes permission; use might when conveying possibility.”

For example, I may drink wine with dinner tonight. I’m older than 21; I am legally allowed to do so. (And I’m definitely having a glass.)

I might invite some friends to eat with me—it’s a possibility.

Does the precise usage of any of these words surprise you? Please let us know in the comments section.

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