THE BLOG

Don't Let These 5 Confusing Words Mar Your Image

04/02/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Tom's an articulate physician, totally able to speak his mind and express a strong point of view. But when he repeatedly says "between you and I," that grammatical error has the same effect as a big splotch of mustard on the front of his suit and tie.

Words matter -- particularly, the wrong ones. Or the right ones used in the wrong way.

Emails. Contracts. Proposals. Slides. Social media posts. Speeches. Press releases. Website copy. Product copy. Sales letters. You probably write more than you realize. And I definitely read and listen to presentations more than the average person because that has been my job for more than three decades -- teaching people to write well and to deliver presentations.

The following words or pairs of words create confusion for many people:

Comprise/Compose

Comprise means has or contains something. Compose means to make up or to be a part of something.

Examples:
Our regional division comprises five states. (The whole comprises parts.)
Each team is composed of a project manager, a marketing manager, an engineer, technical developer, and an administrative manager.

Notice that composed needs an "of" to follow it, but comprise does not.

Myriad/Myriad of

Myriad can be a noun or an adjective. As a noun or an adjective, it means a great many people or things or ten thousand. Synonyms of the adjective form include limitless, untold, boundless, innumerable.)

Example: She wrote myriad bonus checks as an entrepreneur.

A common mistake with this word is to follow it with "of." To understand why that usage is incorrect, substitute the word "innumerable" in the previous example sentence--or any future sentence you're about to write. (Incorrect: "She wrote innumerable of bonus checks as an entrepreneur.")

Ensure/Insure/Assure

These words are confusing because the dictionary definitions look so similar: 1) to guarantee 2) to make certain 3) to protect 4) to offer assurances. And all of these words mean those four things--in some situations--but not in all situations.

For example, big, huge, gigantic, gargantuan all refer to a large size. But they do not mean exactly the same and certainly can't be used interchangeably. You might say, "Bryan gave us a big speech on cutting expenses." But you wouldn't say, "Bryan gave us a gigantic speech on cutting expenses."

Likewise, the difference between ensure, insure, and assure: They can't be used interchangeably.

So here's how each should be used appropriately:

  • Use assure when you're referring to people who are giving a guarantee or pledging to you that something is correct or true. (Example: "Let me assure you that Jim will be present Tuesday.")
  • Use insure when you are referring to monetary payments or insurance that protects you and guarantees against loss. (Example: "This policy insures you against theft and fire.")
  • Use ensure in all other cases when referring to situations about giving guarantees or protections. (Example: A site visit and meeting will ensure that our team understands your objectives.")

Affect/Effect

As a verb, to affect means to influence, change, or act upon.

Example (verb): "That policy will affect many employee schedules."
(Although other meanings for the noun form of affect exist in the world of psychiatry, there's no reason to add complexity here.)

As a noun, effect means a cause or a result of something. Although rarely used as a verb, effect as a verb means to cause something to happen.

Example (noun): "The effect of the new policy will be devastating on morale." (result of the new policy)

Example (verb): "The new policy will effect a dramatic change in employee loyalty." (will cause)

Imminent/Eminent

Imminent means likely to happen at any time. Eminent means prominent, well-known, or distinguished.

Examples: "A blizzard for our area is imminent. But Jerald Heizer, an eminent CEO in the airline industry, has assured us that the airports will remain open."

Now you have it. No more mustard stains on your brand.