20 Commonly Misused Words and Expressions Even People With Huge Vocabularies Get Wrong

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost


Last week, I discovered I’d been writing “TDLR;” instead of “TL;DR.” Considering I’ve been using this expression at least once per day for the last five years, I was mortified.

Mistakes like these aren’t a huge deal on their own. But there’s a “death by a thousand cuts” effect: The more words and phrases you misuse, the less credibility you have.

Don’t make prospects doubt your hard-earned expertise. Read on to discover which words and expressions you may be using incorrectly. 

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1) “Skim” and “scan”

“Skimming” and “scanning” are two different reading techniques. If you’re trying to get the gist of something, you “skim” it by quickly looking over the main sections and keywords.

If you’re trying to find a specific detail, on the other hand, you “scan” the document.

In a Sentence:

“I skimmed your company’s SEC filings to get a better sense of your financial history.”

“I scanned the meeting notes to find where we discussed payment.”

2) “Proceed” and “precede”

To “proceed” is “to continue,” whereas “precede” means “to go before.”

In a Sentence:

“Thanks for pausing -- we can proceed.”

“Can we go back to the preceding point?”

3) “Due diligence”

“Due diligence” is a legal term for the investigation into a company or person before signing a contract or entering a business agreement.

The expression can also mean “doing research.” Just make sure you say “do due diligence,” not “do diligence” (which doesn't mean anything).

In a Sentence:

“I did some due diligence to make sure her company checks out.”

“After doing some due diligence, I don’t think they’re a good fit.”

4) “Rein” and “reign”

“Rein” refers to the straps you use to guide a horse -- which explains its second meaning, "to keep under control or restrict."

To “reign,” on the other hand, is "to rule or command a kingdom."

In a Sentence:

“Let’s pull in the reins on the spending -- we’ve already blown through half our monthly budget, and it’s only June 5.”

“She reigns over the HR department.”

5) “Supposably”

“Supposably” isn’t a real word: It’s a cross between “presumably” and “supposedly.” Letting this one slip can make you sound silly.

In a Sentence:

“Supposedly, they’re acquiring Pied Piper next month.”

“Richard will presumably continue as CEO.”

6) “Ensure” and “insure”

They might sound similar, but “ensure” means "to make certain," while “insure” refers to buying insurance.

In a Sentence:

“We ensure all of our suppliers meet OSHA regulations.”

“My company insures its most expensive equipment.”

7) “Deep-seeded”

According to typo-proofing tool Correctica, even the Washington Post and White House have gotten this one wrong. The correct version is “deep-seated,” as in “firmly established” or “ingrained.”

In a Sentence:

“Your deep-seated presence in the local community is impressive.”

8) “Piece of mind” and “peace of mind”

When you give someone a “piece of your mind,” you’re letting them know why you’re angry.

“Peace of mind” is very different: It’s a calm, relaxed state you enter when you know nothing’s wrong.

In a Sentence:

“If Jane still can’t get a sales engineer for the call, she’s going to give Sarah a piece of her mind.”

“Mind if I look over the deck for typos one last time? It’ll give me peace of mind.”

9) “Sneak peak”

“Peak” and “peek” might only be one letter off, but the former refers to the top of a mountain, while the latter means “to look quickly.”

Unless you have a mountain range stashed away, you can’t give people a “sneak peak” -- you can only give them a “sneak peek.”

In a Sentence:

“We just rolled out a new feature. Want a sneak peek?”

10) “For all intensive purposes”

People use this phrase all the time to say “virtually” or “for all practical purposes.” It’s actually “for all intents and purposes” -- you can blame faulty hearing for the confusion.

In a Sentence:

“I’ll follow up today, but for all intents and purposes, the deal is dead.”

11) “Tongue-and-cheek”

No, the joke your prospect just told wasn’t “tongue-and-cheek” -- it was “tongue-in-cheek.” The difference is subtle, but it's an important one to get right.

In a Sentence:

“They were pretty serious when we started the call, but being tongue-in-cheek helped them loosen up.”

12) “Slight” versus “sleight”

You “slight” someone when you insult or snub them. However, “sleight” means “deceitful craftiness.”

In a Sentence:

“Jan slighted Michael by not inviting him to the corporate dinner.”

“The pickpocket managed to grab my wallet by sleight of hand.”

13) “By in large”

When you want to say “on the whole,” or “everything considered,” make sure you don’t accidentally say “by in large.” The correct phrase is “by and large.”

In a Sentence:

“By and large, the discovery call went well.”

14) “Principle” and “principal”

A “principle” is a belief, philosophy, or fundamental truth. Hopefully, you’re a person of principle.

“Principal” can mean many things. First, it can mean “main,” or “major.” It can also refer to capital before interest. Finally, “principal” is the title of the primary (sometimes the only) investor in a business.

In a Sentence:

“The offer was tempting, but I had to reject it based on principle.”

“The principal returned my email, but I think her agency might be too small to use our services.”

15) "Adverse" and "averse"

An "adverse" effect prevents your success or progress toward a goal, while "averse" means something you're strongly opposed to.

In a Sentence:

"I just got adverse news from my customer champion."

"I'm not averse to offering her a free trial."

16) "Appraise" and "apprise"

To determine the value of an item, you "appraise" it. To inform someone, you "apprise" them.

In a Sentence:

"According to the firm who appraised the property, it will be worth more once the community playground is finished."

"I'll apprise you as soon as I hear back from my finance director."

17) "Begs the question"

People commonly use "begs the question" to mean "clearly makes you wonder" or "obviously leads to this next question." However, it actually means "assumes what it should be proving. Use it to refer to circular reasoning.

In a Sentence:

"The website says their product boosts productivity by making you more efficient, but that begs the question."

18) "Dichotomy," "discrepancy," and "disparity"

There is a "dichotomy" between two different or entirely opposite things. There is a "discrepancy" between two things that should be identical -- but are not. A "disparity" means a significant difference for something you can measure, like salary, age, or access to a resource.

In a Sentence:

"There's a dichotomy between your recruiting and retention goals."

"I noticed a discrepancy between the numbers you forwarded me versus the ones you told me on the phone."

"The pricing disparity for your North American customers compared to your European customers is troubling."

19) "New age"

Beware of calling your solution "New Age" -- in general, this term means "mystical" or "spiritual" and stems from the New Age movement that spread through niche communities in the 1970s and '80s. It doesn't mean "modern," "cutting-edge," or "futuristic."

In a Sentence:

"Some scholars say the New Age movement hit its apex in the '80s."

20) "Opportunistic"

Are you opportunistic? Perhaps, but you might not want to brag about that. An opportunistic person will exploit any opportunity that arises even if it's immoral, unfair, or unplanned.

In a Sentence:

"Keenan opportunistically took Hooli's acquisition offer, even though he'd already committed to a merger with a Dutch VR startup."

What are your biggest language pet peeves?

Editor's note: This post was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness. 

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