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Are You Botching These Smart-Sounding Words?

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If I actually had a craw, here's what would stick in it -- the misuse of words. More specifically, I cringe when people use certain words to sound smarter than they are, only to reveal themselves as dolts.

Perhaps the most common of these offenses occurs with the lengthening -- by a mere syllable, sometimes -- of the correct word to make it the wrong one for the circumstances.

You ask: How about an example? Here are a couple:

1) "I begrudgingly lent my umbrella to that skunk of a sales manager."

No, you would do so grudgingly. That is, you'd do it because it's best for your company; your rep should look his best, even if he is a conniving, manipulative, malodorous cretin. And because your boss gently "suggested" it.

Now, you might begrudge someone her success or good fortune; that is, wish she had not benefited in that way because of some prior altercation you two may have had.

The two words are somewhat similar in tone -- that is, meanness of spirit -- but avoid doing things "begrudgingly."

On to the next:

2) "Bradford, I'll need a definitive yes or no by Thursday on whether you can host that seminar we discussed."

The speaker means "a definite yes or no" -- with no waffling.

Definitive means defining or authoritative. It's on a par with quintessential or archetypal. It also connotes subjectivity: "This is the definitive translation of Dante's Inferno." Well, sez you. I think it's doggerel.

3) Another term that has crept from the math book into the office lexicon -- apparently for the purpose of emphasis -- is "exponential." (Hyperbola meets hyperbole, in essence.)

If someone is trying to impress you, you might be told that that person's sales increased exponentially in the span of a year. Highly unlikely. (But what might you expect from that skunk of a sales manager -- who, by the way, still hasn't returned your umbrella.)

When something increases exponentially, it first squares, then cubes, then goes to the fourth power, and so on indefinitely. So if five increases exponentially, it becomes 3,125 very quickly. You're better off with dramatically, or significantly -- or better yet, just give the figures, and they'll speak for themselves.

In short, if you hear someone use a term and you're not certain about its precise meaning, look it up. When you hear that person use it again, you can gently correct with, "Gee, Gaston, my understanding of that term is this..." And then you can look it up without having the other person lose face. Unless it's that skunk of a sales manager.

A version of this article first appeared on Ragan.com.