Copy-wise: You’re using these words incorrectly – or are you?

October 10, 2016 5:30 pm

This post was first published on 7 October 2014.

We spend a fair amount of time both blogging and talking to clients about style, grammar, tone of voice and so on. But it can be a moving target.

Why? English, like most languages, evolves. What we sometimes complain about as made up words, imports, slang or new meanings for old favourites become tomorrow’s staples. Meanwhile we use words today that our grandparents wouldn’t recognise.

Words jumble

Take the following three examples: presently, disinterested and refute. This writer has spent at least 20 years witnessing their misuse.

Presently strictly means soon but people more often use it as a synonym for now.
Disinterested means impartial or unbiased but people often use it to mean not interested.
Refute means to rebut or to prove something false but people often use it to mean reject.

But is the joke on me? Look them up and the ‘wrong’ meanings I just mentioned are often cited alongside the traditional definitions.
This isn’t to say that any one of us on our own can bring about a new meaning for a word. Trust me, I’ve met people who thought that possible.
But it does mean that over time even the nit pickers among us have to reassess what’s appropriate to use.

As we’ve said before, the best option remains to keep it simple and keep language direct.

If you want to write that a company ‘must reject the idea’, stay with that. Don’t feel tempted to say ‘they must refute the idea’ – unless of course you mean disprove it.

LinkedIn recently did some research about which posts by its users get read the most. There are various readability tests out there (most famously the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test) and LinkedIn’s finding was to pitch posts at the reading level of an 11-year-old.

I think we can all understand that.
*photo credit: surrealmuse via photopin cc

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