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Get It Right When You Write (or Speak): Three Commonly Misused Words

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How grammatically sound copy maintains your credibility
  • Three commonly misused words and how to use them correctly

So I'm at the gym the other morning, putting in an hour on my favorite elliptical, the one that's smack-dab in front of the TV. The Today show is on, and they're doing a segment on retirement planning. The reporter is interviewing a financial expert. "So," she asks, "what are the things people need to be honing in on as they approach retirement?"

I grimace and think, "No, that's not right."

Then, I recalled a conversation from a couple of years ago. I'd emailed my client a draft of the direct mail promotion I'd written for him. After he looked it over, we talked on the phone. He questioned me about the following sentence: "You'll collaborate with Alan and others in the room to home in on the answers." "Home in," Alan asked, "is that correct?"

I'm sure you've concluded by now what the first of my Three Commonly Misused Words is.

1. Hone

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hone, meaning "to sharpen," has been around since 1828. You can hone a knife and you can hone your writing, public speaking, and marketing skills. But you can't hone in on anything. The correct word, the correct phrase, is home in. In the 19th century, the metaphor referred to what homing pigeons do. By the early 20th century, the phrase also referred to what aircraft and missiles do.

Search the phrase hone in, though, and you'll see that its usage is widespread. Respected writers, such as George Plimpton and Bob Greene, have used the phrase. It's appeared in the pages of The New York Times, the Boston Herald, and many other well-regarded publications. At least one online dictionary defines hone in as "to move or advance toward a target or goal."

Still, any communicator who's serious about communicating will avoid hone in. Sure, most people will understand what you mean by it. But some of them will "discount the messenger" for using this phrase.

Why take that hit to your credibility? If home in on doesn't sound right to you, go with "zero in on"—which, on second thought, might have been a better choice for that promo I wrote for Alan.

2. Comprise

If there were a "Hall of Shame" comprising exhibits related to misused words, the space devoted to comprise would surely be one of its largest. The comprise exhibit would be filled with examples such as these:

  • "What they're saying is far from riveting, but together these images comprise [make up] a small-town symphony of pig racing and wedding planning, young love and old misdemeanors." —New York Times
  • "If, when configuring an action dialog, you want to be able to view the values that comprise [constitute] a CVL, run Designer...." —
  • "So they devised a sound-damping sensor, comprised of [composed of] an infra-red motion-detector, a speaker and a microphone." —

Comprise means "to include, contain, consist of." The whole comprises the parts. As with hone in, you can find a dictionary entry to sanction using comprise to convey a different meaning. In this case, "to form, to make up." My paperback Oxford American Dictionary includes "to form, to make up" as the third definition for comprise.

But it also adds the following usage note: "The words constitute and compose are preferable in this sense. It is incorrect to say or write 'the apartment is comprised of three rooms.'" (They clearly state that the usage is incorrect. And yet they include it as a definition anyway. Go figure.)

To wrap up this section, here are three examples of the precise and skillful use of comprise:

  • "Comprising six essential programs, AMTECH Office Pro increases your competitive advantage, helps you win business and saves you time and money." —AMTECH Power Software website, product description page
  • "Crown Business Park is an exciting new development and will comprise high specification office, industrial and warehouse buildings along with bespoke design and build opportunities." —Barnfield Construction website
  • "Serge Brunier is a French photographer and writer who has specialized in the stars. One of his most stunning works, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic view of the Milky Way, comprises more than a thousand photographs taken over the course of a year." —"Digital Pick: Starry Night," New Yorker (blog), May 20, 2010

3. Podium

In August 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at Sen. Ted Kennedy's funeral mass. It's a moving and (as you would expect at this level) well-written speech. This otherwise note-perfect piece of prose, however, is marred by the President's use of the word podium.

Obama's text, referring to Sen. Kennedy, reads as follows:

"We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers' rights or civil rights."

Obama and his speechwriters paint a vivid picture, and they no doubt liked the alliteration of "pounding the podium." Problem is, in the most widely accepted definition of podium, Sen. Kennedy would have to have fallen flat on his face to be "pounding the podium." That's because, according to Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, "A lectern is the stand on which a speaker places his or her notes. A podium is the raised platform on which the speaker and lectern stand."

And in The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly, Charles Harrington Elster, a nationally recognized authority on language and the author of eight books, writes, "The style manuals of the Associated Press and The New York Times support that time-honored distinction [lectern versus podium] and insist, as the latter puts it, that a speaker stands on a podium and at or behind a lectern.'"

For the final word on podium, I turn to Garner's Modern American Usage. This widely respected guide acknowledges that though using podium for lectern "has become commonplace...careful writers should avoid it."

Careful writers—isn't that what we all should aspire to be? Of course it's one thing if you're sending an email to a family member or friend, but another thing altogether if you're...

  • Posting content on the company website or blog
  • Writing a whitepaper, case study, or newsletter
  • Giving a presentation at an industry conference
  • Making the "big pitch" to the buying committee when your pitch is one of three competing pitches

In the examples above and in all our business communications, we want to put our best foot forward, and that calls for careful writing. Careful writing preserves and enhances our credibility. Writing in the preface to the third edition of his Garner's Modern American Usage and alluding to those who urge wider acceptance of such disputed usages (as presented in this article), Bryan Garner states: "There aren't just a few dozen trouble spots in the language, or even a few hundred. There are several thousand of them. Given the critical acumen of many readers, for a writer to remain unconscious of these pitfalls and write whatever sounds close enough will inevitably lead to a loss of credibility. Vague intelligibility isn't the touchstone; precision is."

Hone in? Comprised of? Using podium for lectern? If your objective is not merely to communicate but to communicate with a precision that preserves and enhances your credibility, you'll forgo (not forego) these words and phrases and make every effort to get it right when you write (or speak).

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Ernest Nicastro is an award-winning B-to-B freelance copywriter. For more information, and to review samples of his work, visit Positive Response.

LinkedIn: Ernest Nicastro

Twitter: @enicastro

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  • by Tracy Anthony Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    The book, When words collide: a media writer's guide to grammar and style, is fabulous at documenting many misused words. It was a required text in college that continues to be updated. I highly recommend it for anyone who writes (and think it would be a great high school text!).

  • by Stephanie Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    The correct use of the words "less" and "fewer" is one of my pet peeves. Fewer pencils and less milk. If you can count the noun, use fewer.

  • by Megan Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    English is my forte and I'm *so* extremely thankful it comes easily to me. (Math on the other hand, does not. I'm terrible.) I love this article. There are so many "corporate bingo" terms that are incorrect (and just plain stupid!) I hope marketing folks all over the place are cognizant about what they write and what they say. Part of my job is to keep an eye on Twitter and wow. Just wow. I'm losing faith in humanity (from a grammar and spelling perspective at least!)

  • by katherine Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    my journalism prof would cringe when we used "over" instead of "more than" when talking quantities ... "over 65% of voters ... " should be more than, as over implies positioning

  • by Josh Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Good article. What you're describing is called an eggcorn by some. See this site for more examples of eggcorns:

  • by Ann Handley Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    I love the word "eggcorn" almost as much as I love "Mondegreen":

    (Which is similar, but different.)

  • by Max de Viet Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    The article makes a valid point and as mentioned in the comments section there are hundreds of examples of the above.

    However, what about when the misuse is so commonplace that the correct usage or terminology results in your readers thinking that you have made a mistake! The argument could then be that unless your target market are writers or English teachers, then using the correct form will have the opposite effect.

    An argument could then be made that as language is constantly evolving marketers should not stick strictly to grammatical rules rooted in dictionaries that are slow to pick up on these things.

    It would be perhaps more interesting to think of examples where this may be the case. I know it has happened from my own personal experience but I can't for the life of me remember what it was!

  • by John Johansen Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    I am firmly a grammar descriptivist.

    This does not mean that I'm willing to accept any and all usage of words. But I also don't think it is feasible to try forcing words back into the molds they previously fit. Language changes, usage evolves.

    As communicators, our goal should be clear presentation of the ideas we want our audiences to understand. When precise grammar comes into conflict with that goal, then we should break the rules.

    We should not affect that the effect of precision trumps clarity.

  • by Josh Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    I certainly understand the perspective of some of the comments above, but I'm not sure I can commit to completely agreeing with the sentiments.

    Sure, language does evolve. While there may be a gray area, there should be a fairly defined black and white, right or wrong, correct or incorrect.

    At what point do you draw the line with language evolution? For example, as an editor I have seen professional writers and laymen use "should of" when they meant "should have." Or what about the incorrect usage of its/it's, your/you're, etc.?

    If enough people are consistently writing or saying what I consider to be incorrect usage, then does that mean the masses are correct and its (sic) time to adjust the language? Where is the line drawn and by whom is that line drawn?

  • by Ernest Nicastro Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting. Language is, indeed, constantly evolving. In fact "comprise," one of my examples, is a word that has almost completed the journey to the point where "comprised of" is totally acceptable across the board. Almost. But at this point there are still enough snoots out there to keep it from completing the journey.

    "Podium" and "hone in," while widely (mis)used, are not nearly to that point yet. And John, I appreciate your comment. That said, as you no doubt gathered from my article, I am firmly a prescriptivist whose thinking is in line with the sentiments expressed by Josh.

    Ultimately, I think, the question in any instance is, "What is the best word for the point I'm try to get across?" That word will deliver on all three counts: precision, clarity and credibility.

  • by Robert Madison Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Irregardless, you're being a bit of a grammar Nazi, aren't you? ;)

  • by Robert Madison Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    BTW, I'm sure everyone has read DFW's, "Authority & American Usage", yes? Just in case...

    Classic DFW. Which is to say, it kicks ass!

  • by Ernest Nicastro Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Well, Robert, if you put it that way, yes, I suppose -- for all intensive purposes -- I am being a bit of a grammar Nazi. ;)

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Robert, thanks for that DFW link! Love it.

    Ernest, that's cute... ;)

  • by Robert Madison Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    "...for all intensive purposes..." Dude, that is *awesome*! That made me laugh. Alot!

  • by Edgar Diaz Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    oh no! and this is not corrected by spell check i guess!! English is not my native language, so i believe i'll have to make sure i have to practice until i hone my writing skills!

  • by Ernest Nicastro Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Way to go, Edgar! Thanks for reading.

  • by Ernest Nicastro Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    I hate it when I make a grammatical error commenting on an article related to grammar. Especially when it's my article. Grrrrr! Obviously what I meant to write was: "What is the best word for the point I'm try[ing] to get across?"

  • by Nadina Rosentuler Fri Jun 24, 2011 via web

    Ernest, that's a typical application of Muphry's law ('s_law) :).

  • by Ernest Nicastro Fri Jun 24, 2011 via web

    Nadina, that's a good one. Nice.

  • by Mimi Sun Jun 26, 2011 via web

    It struck me as a little ironic that the very fist word being dished through was "HONE" as in "Honing In" on something-legitimately valid to point out as an incorrect usage, however, a final edit read through would have noticed that the previous paragraph quoted the word as "HOME"...& this is a blog about exquisite writing? Ironic, a little "oppsie" for the author ;-)

  • by Mimi Sun Jun 26, 2011 via web

    ....and now I'm the one who is blushing!!! I didn't read the entire point to see that HOME was intended !!! Good show, Ernest!

  • by Lisa Sun Jun 26, 2011 via web

    Here's many times do you hear people say or write tenative instead of tenTative.

    But my favorite is how often "leverage" is used instead of the word "use." This is often seen in proposals and other documents written to prove to clients that the money they are spending for our enlightened marketing services is well worth it.

    P.S. Hope I didn't commit too many grammatical sins here. :-)

  • by Ernest Nicastro Sun Jun 26, 2011 via web

    Mimi: You had me going there for a moment. I was about to re-read my article before I saw your next post.

    Lisa: "Leverage" is one of my pet peeves too. I think one of the reasons its usage is so prevalent is that people figure that by using a three-syllable word they'll sound a lot smarter than if they use a one-syllable word. Not so, of course. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

    Along those lines you might enjoy another one of my MarketingProfs articles:

  • by Dimeji Fri Jul 1, 2011 via web

    The use over use of words obviously, basically and 'somethink' in place of something. Particularly grate me. Obviously and basically often imply that the listener has a minimal grasp of fundamental aspects of what is being discussed. And 'somethink' is assign of the laziness that is eroding societies ability to converse.

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