Don’t Let Your Words Accidentally Rile — or Amuse — Your Reader

Will Newman

I’m a word lover.

When I hear a word misused, I grumble. If Linda’s nearby, I complain to her. (She’s a fellow word lover, just more reasonable than me.)

I never correct anyone in person. But I do yell at the radio, newspaper, or whatever media has raised my hackles.

This attitude seems to fly in the face of good copywriting. We’re supposed to “write like we talk.” Take a look at the first paragraph. I should have written Linda is “more reasonable than I.” Too formal. I violate grammar rules all the time.

But when a writer or newscaster or someone who should know better misuses words, grrr.

Let me give you an example.

The other day on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, her guest said, “I got so angry, my head literally exploded.” The image of this author’s head exploding … I couldn’t help laughing.

This misuse of ‘literally’ is common now. It doesn’t bother many people.

But it bothers some people. And we need to understand this.

Nothing in our writing should take the reader’s attention away from our message. We don’t want our words to cause chuckles or raise eyebrows.

If you mean ‘figuratively,’ don’t substitute ‘literally.’ You risk losing your reader’s attention, causing him to laugh … or worse, question your sensibility.

Another example: comprise.

“The team is comprised of ten members” annoys me. The proper use is, “The team comprises ten members.”

I’m not alone in this gripe. It bothers Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett — hosts of the outstanding language podcast A Way with Words. Grant writes slang dictionaries and seldom lets common usage bug him. But this one does.

The reason it bothers Grant mirrors why it bothers me. I think people use ‘is comprised of’ to sound intelligent. To impress. Using it this way does neither.

But when used correctly, the sentence sounds awkward.

How does a smart copywriter use ‘comprise’? “The team has ten members.” Put another way: ‘comprise’ has no place in copywriting.

Brian Garner — author of Dictionary of Modern American Usage — calls words like ‘literally’ and ‘comprise’ skunked words … words whose disputed usage is likely to bother or distract readers.

Do you really want to bother your reader?

Take a look at ‘bimonthly.’

For many years, bimonthly meant every two months. A bimonthly payment plan meant you paid every two months. (Similarly, biweekly and biannually.)

But now, many believe it to mean twice a month. What’s right? Every two months or twice a month?

Both meanings are now accepted as correct. Because the meanings of these words aren’t clear, they’re skunked words. Don’t use them. Ever.

If you use them, you’d have to explain, which wastes time. Something a good copywriter doesn’t do.

No list … just tight editing

I’m not going to give you a list of skunked words. That list changes constantly. Instead, understanding why a word or phrase might be skunked serves you better.

So as you edit your writing, look carefully for words or phrases that confuse (like ‘bimonthly’), that might raise a smile (like ‘literally’), or have become glitzy (like ‘comprise’).

When you spot them, find a simpler, clearer substitute.

I’d love to hear what words you feel are skunked … and so would our other readers. Tell us by commenting below.

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Published: August 26, 2016

26 Responses to “Don’t Let Your Words Accidentally Rile — or Amuse — Your Reader”

  1. Hi Will, I'm glad you wrote this column. I too am bothered, especially when journalists' do this. Here goes:
    pleaded vs. plead women vs. female/ men vs. male what writers have vs. which writers have authoritative vs. authoritarian you and I vs. you and me titled vs. entitled past vs. former (or implying current)boss no matter if vs. whether

    There are others I can't think of right now. To help cope with this situation, listen to Weird Al Yankovic's You Tube entitled Word Crimes. Funny.

    Nora King

  2. I also am annoyed by misused words. Ass is a donkey. Arse according to the internet is archaic English. Cow is female. Bovine is the type of creature.


  3. Oh, yeah, Nora nailed a bunch of my gripes. May I add firstly, secondly, thirdly... Oh, and "and etc." I've seen this as part of a business' name!

    I don't think you'd consider it a skunked word, but "bling" and any of its derivations will make me pitch a letter or tune out an ad almost faster than anything else. Even if it was something I had been interested in!

    Have a great day, folks!

    Deb S

  4. I am on a personal quest to eradicate the words "impacted"and "impactful" from human speech and all writing. These are not words and it irks me that they even exist. Impactful in particular is offensive to grammarians everywhere.

    Guest (Myrna)

  5. Hi Will, I loved this article. People who don't care much about word usage seem to be the norm. It's wonderful to meet people who care about language, like yourself.
    I'm most annoyed when I see blatant grammar mistakes and misspellings in the comments sections of blog, article, or Youtube posts. One particular annoyance is when people write "alot" instead of "a lot." But it's very common.
    I love to hear about word lovers' pet peeves. Steven King's personal writing annoyances in his book "On Writing" made me laugh out loud. It's also a great book on its own.
    Thanks for another great article, Will.
    Best, Kate

    Kate Stelmaszek

  6. Ponder this - the free gift. The definition of gift is something given freely.

    Kathy M

  7. Thanks Will. Yes, I've thought about the conflict between "writing like you talk" and proper grammar and word usage. Seems to be a fine line. It does bother me when words are used incorrectly, especially by journalists, etc. There's a point where informal and correct each have their place. I do worry about the dumbing down of the language as a whole, though...

    Guest (Tina)

  8. Will, I'd love it if you could verify the correctness of a pet peeve for me.....people all over the place these days use the word 'impactful.' Teachers at my job use it all the time, as in "We want our intervention to be impactful for the student."....There's no such word as 'impactful,' is there? It's, "We want our intervention to have an impact on the student." This really grinds my gears. Am I correct?

    [FROM WILL: Hi Joyce. Hi don't have any problem using 'impact' as both verb and noun. But 'impactfuk' makes my gut shiver.]

    Joyce H

  9. Hi Will,

    I am so tired of the word "like" being stuck into conversations (and writing) as a filler.

    My wife and I had the grandkids in for a few weeks this summer, and their grammar was appalling. For example, starting a sentence with the word "like" is terrible grammar, but I saw it in the kids, and see it often in other places where people should know better - like sales copy!

    [FROM WILL: I'm in complete agreement!]

    John White

  10. "Next" when referring to a day of the week.

    For example "The seminar is next Monday." Does that mean the next Monday to appear on the calendar in a few days? Or would that be "this" Monday and you actually mean the following Monday?

    Just use a date.

    The comment about "free gift" reminded me about a conference I once wrote about. The registration fee included a "complimentary lunch." How can you say it's complimentary if it's part of the fee?

    [FROM WILL: John Forde and I just had a fun long distance discussion about 'next' in regard dates. It has lost any reliable meaning. 'Free gift' is a copywriting standard and shouldn't be abandoned in that context. It reinforces the benefit. However, I wouldn't use it in other writing.]

    Guest (Dana)

  11. Irregardless.

    Also, because of many years as a newspaper copyeditor, I would prefer 10 rather than ten.

    [FROM WILL: 'Irregardless - SHUDDER! And numerals vs words for numbers is a matter of the style guide of the company you write for. The numeral has greater visual impact.]

    Scott G

  12. Will, you must have been reading my mail!! Our language, and the words in our language are not only a pure pleasure to use, but also important. Let me say that again : words are IMPORTANT! If incorrect words are used, or if " correct " words are incorrectly used, how can we expect others to understand our meaning? The elemental base to this " word " business is spelling. Incorrect spelling leads to incorrect word usage,and thence to misunderstandings.viz: there and their and they're.Whee! Nothin' easy about English. Carrie Cofer

    Guest (Caroline Cofer)

  13. I get very annoyed at the idiots who call themselves "journalists". The don't know the difference between lead, lead, led, and maybe even LED.

    When "lead" rhymes with reed, it's verb in the present tense (I hope you know what that means).

    If "lead" rhymes with red or said, it's a metal that is commonly used in car batteries.

    But if you're talking about when something caused something else yesterday, and it rhymes with sed or Ted, it's ALWAYS spelled "led".

    I'm appalled at how often it shows up as "lead" instead of "led" in major print publications. Are the spell checking programs broken or not used?

    [FROM WILL: That confusion is why editors used to talk about the 'lede' of the story.]

    Clarke Echols

  14. Hi Will,

    Once again, you've hit the nail on the head with this article. The most overused word in recent memory is... wait for it.... "sustainable." It drives me nuts! I immediately lose interest when I hear it used or read it. In most cases, those who use the word don't even know what it means and use it incorrectly just to sound intelligent and politically correct. It's a real turn off that does just the opposite.

    Guest (Guy S)

  15. Will. I enjoy your insight. Keep it up.

    Guest (Tom)

  16. It drives me nuts to hear the word lesser used instead of fewer. Billy never owns lesser marbles than Joey.

    [FROM WILL: And further instead of farther.]

    Guest (Karen)

  17. My pet peeve is not so much a skunked word but a type of grammatical error that is very common.

    People start a sentence with "As a ..., then write a verb phrase that is not about the stated subject.

    For example -- As a new teacher, my students often misbehave.
    What? The subject is the me (or is it I?) the new teacher. So the action needs to be by me. eg. As a new teacher, I often find it hard to keep my students from misbehaving.
    Otherwise the subject needs to change.
    As students with a new teacher, the kids in my class often misbehave.

    Guest (Diane)

  18. Next - e.g. on Thursday "Next Friday can mean either in eight days time, or tomorrow.

    12 a.m. (ante meridian) means the 12 o'clock before mid day i.e. the midnight preceding the middle of the day.

    12 p.m. (post meridian) means the midnight after the middle of the day.

    Neither time means the meridian (noon) so if you mean noon you can say 11:59am or 12:01pm, or noon.

    Guest (Ian McAllister)

  19. Gay is the first word that comes to mind. It is the first name of a cousin-in-law. It is a last name - Sir Gay comes to mind. I had to abandon a Christmas song I wrote for my children in the late 1970's. As I played the piano and sang the words our little children would twirl in the middle of the living room. "Christmas is a time for dancing when all people feel so gay" I sang. A word I no longer use except in this comment.

    Guest (Gary W)

  20. Here in KY and the Greater Cincinnati area, I have noticed most people using the word "whenever" instead of "when." Even heard a weather forecaster on TV doing it. I never hear them say "when"; it's always "whenever."

    Guest (Joy)

  21. I used to feel arrogant when annoyed by word abuse. I felt less haughty after I read this article. Thank you. I agree that when a journalist or news person commits what I call 'lexicide', the crime is worse. There are trends. Misuse of the word ironic was popular. The current overuse of 'as well', with a side order of redundancy is trending. Oh, adding the word out, to verbs drives me crazy! The incorrect usage of i.e. and e.g. Soon, no one will notice what is incorrect. I am saddened by that.

    Cindy Mae

  22. “Your pants will be ready next Friday.” I thought that meant this Coming Friday. The tailor meant a week from Friday.

    Guest (Jed Kelson)

  23. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. You're right about the "bi-monthly" issue and I hadn't given it much thought. My grammar leaves a lot to be desired, however, I do love words. I detest the usage of the word "like" as in, "I was like driving down the road and my car like stalled." Oh and let's not forget the "yeah", cuz yeah, that would be like bad.

    Guest (Mille)

  24. Loved this piece. The phrase that breaks the rhythm for me is "could care less". Brings me to a screeching halt. I could NOT care less--dammit. I know what the speaker or writer intends, but man, it just messes with my head.

    [FROM WILL: "Could care less" and its sibling "couldn't care less" need to be banished even though one is correct and the other not. It's too confusing for your reader to figure out if you're using the correct or incorrect one. Out! Out! I say.]

    Guest (Jan)

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