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 grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Posted on Monday, January 28, 2013, at 1:50 pm

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

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

  1. Jane (Lester K) says:

    Dear Readers,
    Our software will automatically show all replies as “Jane says:” However, replies to comments about this article are from Tom Stern, The Word Nerd.

  2. Marge says:

    Really enjoy you, word nerd! I might be guilty of the “comprised of” language and I will fix that immediately! TY!

  3. Lianne Simon says:

    Prescriptive rules for language are only valid when they are also descriptive of people who are well understood in that language. Language changes. Rules eventually follow. What’s important is that writers be able to communicate well.

  4. Dear Word Nerd,

    We’d be delighted if you’d spend your Saturday nights with us. We could talk about interesting subjects, or we could watch mysteries together, and groan at their occasional grammar boo-boos.

    The ones that get to me are the use of AMOUNT when they mean NUMBER, FEWER when they mean LESS, VERBIAGE when they mean WORDING, and ME when they mean I. Even the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice had the actress playing Caroline Bingley say, “Is she as tall as me?” when Jane Austen wrote “Is she as tall as I?”

    I hope you forgive any grammar mistakes in this email and that you’ll come on Saturday.

    Most sincerely,
    An Admirer

  5. Kathy Davidson says:

    Thanks always for your wonderful newsletter and timely topics.

    Separately, I’ve been wondering if the word “eager” has left the dictionary. In the place of “eager”, people use the word, “anxious”, as in, “I’m anxious (eager?) to get my next paycheck which will reflect a recent raise.” ; or, I’m anxious (eager?) to visit my grandparents – I’ve missed them so much.

    Don’t people see the word “anxiety” in the word “anxious”? I listen to a lot of audio books and cringe every time the performer says ‘. . . anxious . . . while I ”NEVER hear the word eager.

    Please help me understand what appears to me to be inappropriate usage of one word, and sheer, utter neglect of another.

    Kind regards and in appreciation,

    • Jane says:

      I’d say you understand these words well. I hadn’t noticed the lack of the use of eager quite as acutely as you have.

    • Glenda Springer says:

      The misuse of “anxious” and “eager” are like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard … When I’ve asked if they are “afraid/worried — or looking forward to”, people tend to look at me like I have three eyes! In addition to grammar, the “new spelling techniques” as a result of texting is contributing to the (rapidly!) declining ignorance of society.

  6. Lauren Krause says:

    I enjoyed the Word Nerd column and was pleased to find support for some of the attitudes I hold regarding word usage, particularly of the tricky “comprise.” However, as a healthcare professional, I see the word “impact” used as a verb so often that I think it has crossed the line to acquiring another meaning, that of “affect,” and that soon we will be seeing this in dictionaries, if it is not there already. There comes a point where a language maven becomes descriptive and no longer only prescriptive.

  7. Marilyn says:

    True that language is butchered all the time but we can’t forget one truth about language – that it is constantly evolving. Some of these words might soon have an additional meaning added to them.

  8. James Bowen says:

    An excellent collection of misused words and phrases but it left out two commonly misused words: “procrastinate” and “prevaricate”. I wince every time some thoroughly decent person who has simply been slow to respond is accused of “prevaricating” when the user means “procrastinating”. Heavens above! Why don’t they just use those perfectly good words “lie” and “delay”. Another irritating usage is “conflate” which appears to be replacing the perfectly good word “blend” in bureaucratic language.

  9. paisley says:

    Hi Grammer Book!

    Love your articles! This one is especially great! Please clarify for me January 28th, 2013 is correct? Shouldn’t it be January 28, 2013? Since when has putting a “th” become acceptable? I see this all the time, and I actually read along time ago that this is incorrect.
    I will trust your answer!

    Thank you,


    • Jane says:

      Yes, January 28, 2013, is correct. Unfortunately, the WordPress software that we use for our blog automatically expresses the date incorrectly with an ordinal ending. We have pointed this out to the company several times. Maybe one day it will take hold. Otherwise, WordPress is a good tool.

  10. S. Bailey says:

    Thank you to the Word Nerd – for your ever-helpful information.I hope the following does not completely destabilise your desperate foray into the conservation and preservation of the English language:

    “Dear Word Nerd – must say you literally hit the nail on the head – it is fortuitous that you can impact so many people with your work that is comprised of so many very good ideas. In fact you could gain notoriety from all the improvements that some infamous writers have gained by embracing in your work!”

  11. Tina says:

    Loved this!

  12. Cassie Tuttle says:

    Excellent article! I am going to share it on Facebook (with attribution, of course). :-)

  13. Wildrice says:

    Thank you for sharing the article. I enjoyed it. I would like to take the “impact” argument a bit further. English is a constantly evolving language. After a certain amount of time, the popular use of a (previously “unapproved”) word can give way to acceptance and an entry in dictionaries. I often see the use of ‘impact’ as a strict synonym of ‘effect (noun)/affect (verb)’. I find that we lose nuance with this singular usage; for example, if something REALLY affects you, you can use ‘impact’ , but if there is little effect, then say ‘little effect’; in other words ‘small impact’ (in the virtual sense, not in the physical ‘impacted tooth’ sense) is a contradiction in terms. Impact is so often used that it has lost its impact.

  14. Janice W. says:

    Impact is a noun. The problem is, people use it as a verb.

  15. Shelley B. says:

    …yes, and have you come across people who misuse the word ‘appraised’, e.g. ‘He was quickly appraised of the situation…’ It should be apprised! It’s surprising the number of lawyers – those supposed bastions of good grammar – who make this error!

    appraise: estimate the amount of; to evaluate the worth, significance, or status of; to give an expert judgment of the value or merit of .
    apprise: to give notice to; Synonyms: acquaint, advise, enlighten, brief, catch up, clear, clue (in), familiarize, fill in, hip, inform, instruct, tell, verse, wise (up)

  16. Victoria B. says:

    Loved it! Now I shall have a better and more correct vocabulary regarding these words. You make it easier to remember. Thanks!

  17. Jacky L says:

    Fantastic article! I’ve never encountered the Word Nerd before, but hope to see lots more. What fun!

  18. Hopewell N. says:

    Wow, thank you very very much. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for the help you are giving me and many other subscribers. God bless.

  19. Jehu says:

    Thank you for advising everyone on desirable usage of words and language.
    I do share your appreciation (and concern) for clear and adequate production and consumption of speech; however, I struggle with the undeniable circumstance that people (out of ignorance or comfort, it’s hard to tell) will use language to achieve their goals, regardless of any other considerations.

    Then popular usage eventually becomes the norm. Then there is the fact that speech is malleable and is exercised in poetic/literary ways.

    You could be poetic while speaking, and still break one or two rules.
    Should this act be explicitly literary for the seemingly wrongful usage to be viable?
    What is the relationship between the benefits of normative usage and the richness and diversity of language as it’s exercised in everyday speech?

    I enjoy the playful spontaneity of speech as much as the subtle beauty that emerges when it with complies with some specific (usually literary) form, normative or otherwise.


    • Jane says:

      We at recognize the pitfalls spelled out in your comment, but nonetheless feel there is a clear difference between evolving language and deteriorating language. And where the latter is concerned, we feel obliged to comment on it and rail against it. From the nature of your comments, I feel that you would enjoy reading George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which I’m sure is available on the internet. Within this essay, Orwell lists numerous rules for any writer, mostly in the form of: never do this, never do that. Then he says, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

  20. Grey says:

    “Virtually” allows you to enhance and embellish to your heart’s content, options you relinquish by using “literally.”

    “Content” is an adjective. Use it ’til your heart’s content. I don’t understand why most people want to do things “to their heart’s satisfied”.

  21. Martha Locke says:

    Regarding the salutation – Kind Regards…

    Have you written anything on this (over-used and redundant) sign-off that is currently so popular?

    I dislike it and just sign off with a simple – Regards…

    What are your thoughts?

    • We have not written about either salutations or valedictions other than in regard to the use of commas or colons with salutations. Thank you for the idea; we are considering it for a future article.

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