John McIntyre is the retired copy desk chief for the Baltimore Sun. He used to compile lists of words often misused for the American Copy Editor's Society. Thought I'd share two of his lists here. Remember, these are for newspapers, but it is kind of interesting. I hope you enjoy them.
We Are Not Bemused... Source: John E. Mcintyre, copy desk chief, The Baltimore Sun
You may see yourself as on the verge of being overwhelmed in a beleaguered outpost of English usage, but here is ammunition against imprecision in the use of words.
Words commonly misused
Another -- Another means one more of the same kind or quantity. If you sell your cow for five magic beans and then win five more in a wager, you have won another five beans. If you win six or four, you have won six or four more, not another six or four.
Bemused -- No connection with amusement. It means preoccupied or befuddled.
Comprise -- The plan will be presented Friday in Brussels, Belgium, at a meeting of foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, according to diplomatic sources. The five powers comprise the so-called Contact Group on Bosnia. They do not. The so-called Contact Group on Bosnia comprises Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. The whole thing comprises its constituent parts. The parts compose or make up the whole.
Dilemma -- The word means a choice between two equally unpleasant options. Do not use it where problem, difficulty, predicament or quandary would be more appropriate.
Enormity -- Nothing to do with size. An enormity is not a big thing, but a horrible thing, an outrageous thing, a heinous thing.
Expatriate -- We see this – more often than you might think -- written phonetically as "ex-patriot," a word that does not exist. An expatriate has gone out of ("ex") his or her native country ("patria") to live. Patriotism has no necessary connection with it.
Face -- Fleiss faces a minimum of three years, and up to eight years and eight months in prison. A sentencing hearing was set for Jan. 20. To face is to confront, to meet squarely, head-on, immediately. What Heidi Fleiss faces is the prospect of a particular sentence, a possibility. She will face the sentence at the moment the judge pronounces it. It is preferable in such contexts to say that a defendant could be sentenced to a particular term. Observing this distinction will involve changing some of our habits.
Following -- Do not use following as a preposition. When you mean after, that is the word to use. The AP Stylebooks example: He spoke after dinner. Not: He spoke following dinner.
However -- However emphasizes a contrast. It should fall at the pivotal point between the two elements -- in the middle of a sentence, if that is where the shift occurs, or at the beginning of a sentence that contrasts with the immediately previous sentence. Don't let it fall so late in the sentence that the effect is lost. The ban on using it at the start of a sentence is a superstition. However, don't overdo it or use however when nevertheless or all the same would sound more natural.
Including -- Include suggests part of the whole group. Use comprise, if you follow the entry on that word, in listing the complete members or constituents of a group; use include to introduce a partial listing.
Infamous - It means notorious, not just well-known. Don't use it as a synonym for famous In fact, since it is a pejorative, better not use it at all. (Sportswriters in particular should note: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was infamous. Very few events from sporting contests ever approach that pitch of notoriety.)
Ironically -- Mallia was signed by Dayton last season because No. 1 goalie Carlos Pena had a separated shoulder. Ironically, Smith played with Pens not only with the Dynamo but also in their high school days in Culver City, Calif. Not ironically, but coincidentally. "Irony" as a rhetorical term means a statement that means the opposite of what it says. It can be applied as well to events to suggest some reversal or other contrast involving opportunity and events. In the main, this is a word that doesn't need to be used at all. If there is irony present, the ready reader will perceive it. Show; don't tell.
Like -- He feels like he was personally repudiated. ... Using like in place of as if or as though is colloquial and should be avoided.
Literally -- The three-year varsity player literally carried the team to victory in the Catholic League tournament championship. ... If only we had been able to get art with that. The ward "literally" means according to the exact meaning of the word, to the letter. Don't use it to mean figuratively or metaphorically; don't use it for emphasis. If you can't take a picture of what the action is, it isn't literal.
Mull -- They continue to hold discussions with Brian David, agent for Smith, who is mulling a two-year offer from the California Angels. You can mull wine or cider, but you do not mull other things. Mull over is idiomatic for "to meditate" or "to ponder."
Most -- Most every day in an Eldersburg neighborhood of green lawns and tidy homes, a woman bearing an evening meal heads for the Gates house. Using most for almost is a colloquialism that we try to avoid, except in direct quotation.
Schizophrenic -- The word does not refer to a split personality, multiple personality or the state of being of two minds about a subject. It is a severe psychological disorder characterized by separation of the thought processes from the emotions, distorted perception of reality, and the like. Don't use it casually, and don't use its slang equivalent, schizo, at all
Superlatives -- Words that should make you tremble as you enter them into stories: largest, first, most, only. We have only to write that some event is the first of its kind or that some person is the only one to have done something and the phones begin to ring. Don't bestow such distinctions unless you have personally verified the accuracy, and be cautious and sparing with them even then.
That -- We often omit this conjunction when it is needed. Use that when there is a time element after a verb: He said yesterday that he would file suit. Use that when there are two parallel subordinate clauses in a sentence: He said that he would file suit and that he would not settle. Use that before subordinate clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, because, in addition to, until and while. Thus: He said that although he is a reasonable man, he still intends to sue. Some verbs require that: advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose and state.
Words Commonly Confused
Source: John E. McIntyre, copy desk chief, The Baltimore Sun
Cement/concrete -- The powder in a bag is cement. Concrete is the substance made from cement, water, sand and gravel If you're not writing about a powder, don't use cement.
Exhaustive/exhausting -- Exhaustive means thorough and complete -- in the sense that a topic is exhausted, used up. Exhausting means profoundly tiring.
Flack/flak -- Flack is a pejorative word for someone engaged in public relations; flak, or anti-aircraft fire, is what a flack catches from the press.
Flair/flare -- See Scrooge with a Christian flare in this new musical. A flare is a bright light. Flair, which originally referred to a dog's ability to discriminate among smells, has come to mean a talent, aptitude or knack.
Forward/foreword -- Forward is a direction; a foreword is an introduction to a book, the words that come before the main text.
Hark/hearken -- To hark is to listen; to hearken is to heed. To recall an earlier time is to hark back, not hearken back.
Lead/led -- Lead (pronounced 'led') is a metal. Lead (pronounced 'leed') is the verb meaning to direct or guide. Led (also pronounced "led") is the past tense of the verb. It is presumably the confusion of sounds that leads some writers to use lead as the past tense of the verb; do not be led astray.
Loath/loathe – Loath is reluctant (and mildly archaic); loathe means to despise.
Mantel/mantle -- A mantel is a shelf above a fireplace. A mantle is a cloak, often used metaphorically to indicate the authority or responsibility of an office -- the mantle of power.
Peak/pique -- A peak is a mountaintop (noun) or the arrival at a high point (verb). Pique is resentment (as a noun) or arousal or provocation (as a verb). Interest rates can peak, but one's interest is piqued.
Restful/restive -- Restive means unruly or balky, jumpy or nervous. Restful means soothing.
Role/roll -- Membership roles at fat farms, health spas and racket clubs would swell. A role is the part of a character in a play; a roll is a list or register (Whether it is prudent to use the verb "swell" in the context of "fat farms" is a separate question.)
Trooper/trouper -- A trooper is a soldier, a trouper is an experienced actor. When we speak of someone who comes through difficult circumstances dependably, we call that person a trouper.
Nouns used as verbs
Nouns are nouns, and verbs are verbs. Sometimes in English one transmutes into the other, but the following nouns do not become verbs in the pages of The Baltimore Sun.
Host -- Likewise guest.
Some words infest copy because journalists have traditionally been fond of cablese, words originally coined to save transmission costs and later thought to impart a snappy tone. The charm of "upcoming" "ongoing" and similar words has long since faded. Others that we use reflexively are simply not needed.
Currently -- If some action is continuing, that circumstance will almost always be clear in context, so currently can usually be dispensed with. If you use it in place of now, that is pretentious.
Downplay -- Play down is preferable.
Here -- If your story has a dateline, the reader can figure out where the action is taking place. Ration yourself to no more than one here to a story if you feel a need to establish your physical presence on the scene. To use it repeatedly does not convey immediacy. Rather, it begins to suggest a giddy breathlessness on the part of the reporter: "it's really me, and I’m actually here in Ouagadougou."
Ongoing -- This word is almost always superfluous; continuing action is usually clear in context. If you must use something, use continuing.
Upcoming -- Also almost always superfluous. Coming or forthcoming does perfectly well something is needed.