Five Words Often Misused In Business Writing

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Published Jul 20, 2012 | Written by Jeremy Knight
writerHas it ever struck you how many, often well-educated, people seem to think that grammar and spelling are as obsolete as typewriters? Of course, some rules are easily broken; I’ll start a sentence with ‘But’ sometimes, and with the occasional ‘And’. But (see, I just did it!) these are things that have crept into our business writing, particularly marketing copy, and most people don’t find them offensive any more.

However, there are a variety of mistakes, or word ‘misuse’ that will make you look incompetent with your business writing, article writing or blog writing and have your reader cringing; you should try very hard to avoid them if you want to be taken seriously and maintain your company’s credibility.


Awe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. Awesome doesn’t mean good, or nice, interesting, or convenient. The enormous power of nature might be awesome; your favourite pizza isn’t. A view, a storm, a cliff, a mountain, a waterfall might be described as awesome, not the latest in office filing systems. 


Use ‘motivating’ instead.It’s a proper word that already exists, and has a perfectly obvious meaning. Incentives are supposed to ‘motivate’ employees, not incentivise them!


If you mean ‘I hope’, say that instead. When you say ‘hopefully our team wins’ you said our team wins and is full of hope as it does so. Did you mean ‘I hope our team wins?’ Hopefully is like ‘quickly’ or ‘softly’; it gives more detail about how something is done. He works quickly. She speaks softly. Many people voted hopefully.

Unique (extremely unique/very unique)

Something unique is one of a kind, like no other. Either it’s unique or it isn’t; there are no degrees of uniqueness. More unique or less unique makes no sense.


The word ‘criteria’ is plural; the singular is ‘criterion’. This is very similar to phenomena (plural) and phenomenon (singular). On the whole it would appear that the world has given up on ‘data’, which is technically the plural of ‘datum’, although in some well-penned communications you will still read ‘the data are’ which is correct, instead of ‘the data is’, which isn’t!

Other ‘baddies’ to beware of


‘Less’ is correctly used when comparing quantities that can’t be counted; e.g. “I’d like less milk.” If you’re comparing quantities, use ‘fewer’, e.g. ‘25 words or less’ should actually be ‘25 words or fewer’.

Break even

The phrase means different things to different people. The most common financial meaning is about the ‘break-even’ point, which is when revenue for some time frame is equal to costs and expenses –there is a specific financial calculation involved. But many people mistakenly use ‘break even’ to express a point in which return from an investment equals the original investment. Wrong.


From the Latin, this means ‘the last in a list of items’. However, it is so widely used to indicate the best; a current google search for ‘ultimate phone’ will give you about 300 million hits! One might rightly argue that the last phone has yet to be made. Type ‘ultimate’ into your search engine and thousands of hits will appear, mostly using it as ‘the best’.

However, for a change, this is the ultimate entry in this list!

Just remember to be extra careful when you write content for your company that it isn’t strewn with commonly misused words. Don’t follow the herd and you’ll stand out.

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Published by Jeremy Knight July 20, 2012
Jeremy Knight