Work

14 common words and phrases you've probably been saying wrong this whole time

Tim Robberts | Getty Images

Many times, especially in business settings, people use words that they think they know — but don't.

Although they do this in an effort to sound intelligent and sophisticated, it backfires badly, because even one small slipup can cause an audience to focus on only that, not the speaker's ideas.

As writers of several grammar books, we've dealt with many confused and misused words and phrases in American English. Here are some of the most common ones:

1. "adverse" and "averse"

Two words with only a "d" to tell them apart, but are used very differently. Usually, a person is averse about something, whereas a thing or situation is adverse. Another difference: In most cases, if it comes right before a noun, it should be "adverse" and not "averse."

  • The cat had an adverse reaction to the medicine.
  • The cat was averse to the taste of the medicine.

2. "effect" and "affect"

Switching "effect" and "affect" is one of the most common errors students make on SAT and ACT exams. "Affect" is almost always a verb meaning to act upon, to make a change to something. "Effect" is usually a noun, and typically means a change that happened already, one that resulted from something else acting on it. 

  • The heat affected the woman.
  • The heat had an effect on the woman.

3. "chomping at the bit" and "champing at the bit"

It's "champing," although many people say "chomping," so you won't raise too many eyebrows if you say it incorrectly. This phrase has been around at least since 1577, when referred to horses anxiously grinding — or champing — their teeth before a race. Now it refers more to people super-eager to do something.

  • The quarterback was champing at the bit to get back into the game.
  • We are champing at the bit trying to correct this mistake.

4. "copywrite" and "copyright"

Remember, you don't copywrite what you wrote, you copyright it. "Copyright" is a legal right (notice the "right") giving the creator of an original work the exclusive legal entitlement to it. "Copywriting" is something people in advertising do — they write copy (or text). Incidentally, no one says "copywrite" without the "ing," they "write copy."

  • Original written works are protected by copyright law.
  • The top copywriter at the ad agency writes stellar copy.

5. "deep-seated" and "deep-seeded"

It's "deep-seated," not "deep-seeded." You can see from the original meaning: Having its seat far beneath the surface. The phrase soon came to mean "firmly established" (except maybe in mostly tournament sports, where "seeding" refers to ranking of competitors).

  • I don't know why, but I have a deep-seated fear of clowns.
  • We have a deep-seated aversion to people incorrectly writing or saying "deep-seeded."

6. "discrete" and "discreet"

"Discreet" means capable of keeping secrets or unobtrusive. "Discrete" means separate or distinct. Both come from the same Latin word, but evolved to become very distinct words that are frequently confused. We've seen sex toys advertised as being shipped in "discrete" packages, which only means they're being shipped separately.

  • People always felt comfortable telling her secrets, since she was so discreet.
  • The pieces were arranged in discrete piles.

7. "first come, first serve" and "first come, first served"

"First come, first served" is right. It generally means that the customers who come to a store or a place first get served first. Without the "d" at the end of "serve," it sounds like the first person has to serve everyone else. Not much of an advantage for early birds.

  • Since seating is on a first come, first served basis, it's best to get there early.
  • Supplies are limited, and orders will be fulfilled on a first come, first served basis.

8. "for all intensive purposes" and "for all intents and purposes"

It should be "for all intents and purposes." "Intensive" is an adjective meaning vigorous or exhaustive. "Intents" is a noun meaning purpose. They're obviously not interchangeable. (Even when used correctly, this phrase is often frowned upon as a cliche. There are simpler ways to say what it means, like "essentially.")

  • Since I only have a four-day workweek, for all intents and purposes, Thursday is my Friday.
  • For all intents and purposes, we should still be social distancing.

9. "hone in" and "home in"

Never say "honing in." You home in. "Homing in" initially described carrier pigeons returning to their homes, then, by the 1920s, described aircraft and missiles being guided to a target. From there, it came to generally mean anyone or anything focusing on or directed towards a goal. "Hone," on the other hand, means "to sharpen," as with a knife.

  • We're homing in on the right solution to this problem.
  • Researchers are homing in fast on the source of the virus.

10. "in regard to" and "in regards to"

It's "in regard to." Or better yet, just say "regarding." You can say "as regards," or offer someone your "best regards," both with the "s." But in regard to "in regards to," leave that "s" off! 

  • I had a long talk with him in regard to his request for a loan.
  • The teacher talked to the students in regard to their homework.

11. "should of" and "should have"

If, like all too many people, you said "should of," well, you should have picked the second version. "Have" is the main verb part of this phrase, and it should always be included, either as the complete "have" or the contraction "'ve." The wrong "of" usage comes from how that contraction sounds.

  • I should have never used "should of" in that sentence!
  • Those plates were expensive .. you should have been more careful.

12. "simplistic" and "simple"

Simplistic means "characterized by a great deal of simplicity" — which sounds good, but almost always means too much simplicity, as in an overly simple solution to a complex problem. (And never modify simplistic with "overly" or similar words. Since "simplistic" already means overly simple, "overly simplistic" means something is "overly, overly simple.")

  • The politician gave a simplistic answer to the town hall question about taxes. At least he used simple language.
  • Here's a simple but not simplistic rule of thumb: "Simple" = good, "simplistic" = bad.

13. "tough road to hoe" and "tough row to hoe"

Can a road ever be easy to hoe? To make sense, it should be a "tough row to hoe," which originally comes from farming. In a cornfield, there are many rows, and some can be much harder to hoe than others. Ask any farmer. But because roads are more common than rows in today's urbanized world, people commonly (and wrongly) say "tough road to how."

  • Reaching the top of a career ladder in a competitive industry can be a tough row to hoe.
  • Sobriety is a tough row to hoe.

14. "tow the line" and "toe the line"

Always go with "toe the line." No one knows where this phrase originated — maybe from runners putting their toes on their marks in a race. We should toe the line — meaning to accept or conform to a rule or standard … like using "toe" instead of "tow."

  • It's best to toe the line and do whatever your supervisor tells you.
  • Students who refuse to toe the line will face severe consequences.

Kathy and Ross Petras are the brother-and-sister co-authors of "Awkword Moments: A Lively Guide to the 100 Terms Smart People Should Know," "You're Saying It Wrong" and "That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words and Their Tangled Histories." Their work has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. 

Don't miss:

VIDEO1:1401:14
Smart people avoid these 6 common phrases at all costs
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM