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The Word Nerd: Six Pitfalls Writers (and Others) Should Avoid

That’s right, I admit it. I’m a word nerd. I pick, pick, pick at the way you express yourself.

Despite protests of apathy, people of all ages care about how well they express themselves. Deep down, everyone likes to be right about language, and you can even hear little kids teasing each other about talking funny. We word nerds have an advantage here, but we certainly don’t choose to be word nerds. It’s thrust upon us. Believe me, a lot of us would rather be star quarterbacks. No one ever got a date by discoursing on split infinitives.

I thought you might be interested in some of the current trends and tendencies in modern ignorance. It might be fun to watch with me the inexorable erosion of our language—and civilization—and we can gnash our teeth and wring our hands and feel secretly smug and superior. That’s what word nerds do for a good time. So let’s roll:

Fortuitous  It most emphatically does not mean “lucky” or “fortunate”; it simply means “by chance,” a much less optimistic denotation, since you can win the lottery fortuitously or get flattened by a truck fortuitously.

Notoriety  Another badly botched word these days, “notoriety” has somehow become a good thing: “Burgess gained notoriety with his wildly popular children’s books.” But can’t you hear the “notorious” in “notoriety”? There are all kinds of fame; “notoriety” is one of the bad kinds, just down the pike from “infamy.”

Impact  “How does the proposition impact property taxes?” or “Greenhouse gas emissions negatively impact the environment.” This is pretentious twaddle. “To impact” means to pack tightly together, as in “an impacted tooth.” In sentences like the two examples above, simply use “affect” instead, and you’ll sleep the serene slumber of the saintly.

Literally  “Literally” is supposed to mean “100 percent fact”—period. But not today, when “literally” now is commonly used figuratively! How sad that a no-nonsense word with such a strict meaning has been so hideously compromised. Any sentence with “literally” means what it literally says, and when we hear it, we are being asked to believe our ears, rather than interpret or infer. So if you tell me you “literally hit the ceiling,” I’d suggest you move to a place with higher ceilings.

I recently read about a couple whose dreams “literally collapsed” when, unfortunately, a fixer-upper they bought came down in a heap as they started working on it. Now, we know what the writer meant, but just don’t mess around with “literally,” OK? The house literally collapsed, not the dream. How could a dream, the very essence of all that is beyond materiality, literally collapse? It’s utter gibberish.

The simple solution? Just say “virtually.” “Virtually” allows you to enhance and embellish to your heart’s content, options you relinquish by using “literally.”

Comprise is the most misused and misunderstood two-syllable word in common English usage. It seems straightforward enough: it means to contain, consist of, take in, embrace. But when used on its own, it’s usually mangled. “Joey, Johnny, and Fritz comprise a group of daredevils.” Sorry, but the group comprises (contains, consists of) Joey, Johnny, and Fritz. Which brings us to…

Comprised of  This ubiquitous phrase is wrong every time. It’s the result of confusing and incorrectly combining “comprise” and “composed of.” It’s both ignorant and pompous, a lethal combo. “Composed of” is so mundane and “comprised of” just sounds ever so much cleverer, doesn’t it? Too bad there’s no justification for it. Quick fix: simply replace it with “comprise.” Wrong: “The team is comprised of Chicagoans.” Right: “The team comprises Chicagoans.” Far better: The team is composed of Chicagoans.

Well, that’s all we have time for this week. Now you know why I spend my Saturday nights alone, watching mysteries.

This Tom Stern classic was originally published on January 28, 2013.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

11 responses to “The Word Nerd: Six Pitfalls Writers (and Others) Should Avoid”

  1. Kelly Carter says:

    Thank-you a million times for this article. Especially the pitfall about “comprise.”

  2. Mary Madden says:

    Impact: Are we still trying to retain this word’s original meaning? Lately I’ve been feeling that the battle has been lost! Using “impact” to mean “affect” is so widespread, I’ve been tempted to do it myself. But I just can’t jump on that bandwagon. (Have I mixed my metaphors?)

    • We understand your dismay concerning the word’s gradual transformation through misuse. Impact was originally established to serve as a noun, but as so often happens, popular, sustained bending and twisting in common speech allowed the word to don a verb jacket over its initial noun clothing. While the verb usage is now firmly rooted in English, we as careful writers can still uphold concise formal writing by using it correctly as a noun in both our speech and our composition. It sounds like you’re on our side, and we appreciate hearing that. And, well, unless the bandwagon is moving through the gunfire, yes, you’ve mixed your metaphors!

  3. Lee M. says:

    The example of a substitute word for “impact” should perhaps be “effect,” not “affect.” Is this not correct?

    • Perhaps you’ve hit on the convenience inherent in substituting the word impact for effect or affect. It depends on whether we use the words as nouns or verbs.

      What is the impact of the proposition on property taxes?
      What is the effect of the proposition on property taxes?

      How does the proposition impact property taxes?
      How does the proposition affect property taxes?

      By using impact, one needn’t be concerned about whether to correctly write effect or affect, but we’d prefer that people do bother to make the distinction.

  4. Corinne Swainger says:

    Another buzzword that seems to have been twisted from a noun to a verb is ‘leverage’’. I see it used lot of in the US business news, online and offline. (I’m a UK-US writer based in London). For example:
    ‘We used the money to leverage this year’s financial success.’ This is a lazy way of saying ‘influence’, ‘increase’ or ‘affect’. ‘Leverage’ may sound authoritative but you can’t just turn a noun into a verb by adding ‘age’ to it.

  5. carol kent says:

    I have a question that has been bothering me for years. When has it become permissible to say “If I would have known, I would have come.” Where is the pluperfect in an “if” clause? (If I had known, I would have come.)
    Also, people substitute “of” for “have.” “I would of gone, I would of seen, etc.”
    Thank you.

    • Writing “If I would have known, I would have come” is not grammatically correct. Please see our post If I Would Have vs. If I Had for a complete explanation.
      We too have heard people using “would of” and “could of” as substitutes for “would have” and “could have.” This is certainly grammatically incorrect and possibly born from a lax concern for correct usage.

  6. Maria C says:

    The Oxford dictionary (I believe) states impact means to “have a strong effect on someone or something.” Are we not using that definition?

    • says:

      This post was originally written in 2013. Your definition of impact is valid. We will revisit this list soon from a 2022 perspective.

  7. Melanie V. says:

    Fantastic article! It is unnerving to hear newscasters talk about how events impacted people. In medical circles, the word impacted is usually followed by the word colon. When media talks about people being impacted from events, miserably constipated folks come to mind.

    How about when folks use the word “stood” in place of the past tense of stay? As in, “We stood in Chicago all weekend.” What? They don’t have chairs in Chicago?

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