Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words

So I’m at the gym the other morning putting in an hour on my favorite elliptical, the one that’s smack dab in front of the TV. The Today Show is on and they’re doing a segment on retirement planning. The reporter is interviewing a financial expert.

“So,” she asks, “what are the things people need to be honing in on as they approach retirement?”

I grimace and think, “No, that’s not right.”

Then I recalled a conversation from a couple of years ago. I’d emailed my client a draft of the direct mail promotion I’d written for him. After he looked it over we talked on the phone. He questioned me about the following sentence: “You’ll collaborate with Alan and others in the room to home in on the answers.”

“Home in,” Alan asked, “is that correct?”

As I’m sure you’ve concluded by now, the first of my 3 Commonly Misused Words is -

  1. Hone – According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hone, meaning “to sharpen,” has been around since 1828. You can hone a knife and you can hone your writing, public speaking and marketing skills. But you can’t hone inon anything.

    The correct word, the correct phrase, is home in. In the 19th century the metaphor referred to what homing pigeons do. By the early 20th century, the phrase came to refer also to what aircraft and missiles do.

    Search the phrase hone in though and you’ll see that its usage is widespread. Respected writers such as George Plimpton and Bob Greene have used the phrase. It’s appeared in the pages of the New York Times, the Boston Herald and many other well-regarded publications. At least one online dictionary lists “to move or advance toward a target or goal” as a definition for hone in.

    Still, any communicator who’s serious about communicating will avoid hone in. Sure, most people will understand what you mean by it. But some of them will “discount the messenger” for using this phrase.

    Why take that hit to your credibility? If home in on doesn’t sound right to you go with zero in on – which, on second thought, might have been a better choice of words for that promo I wrote for Alan.

  2. Comprise – If there were a “Hall-of-Shame” comprising exhibits related to misused words, the space devoted to comprise would surely be one of its largest. The comprise exhibit would be filled with such examples as the following:

    “What they’re saying is far from riveting, but together these images comprise [make up] a small-town symphony of pig racing and wedding planning, young love and old misdemeanors.” – New York Times

     “If, when configuring an action dialog, you want to be able to view the values that comprise [constitute] a CVL, run Designer….” – IBM.com

     “So they devised a sound-damping sensor, comprised of [composed of] an infra-red motion-detector, a speaker and a microphone.” – FastCompany.com

     Comprise means “to include, contain, consist of.” The whole comprises the parts.

    As with hone-in, you can find a dictionary entry to justify using comprise to mean “to form, to make up.” My paperback Oxford American Dictionary includes “to form, to make up” as the third definition for comprise. But it also adds the following usage note: “The words constitute and compose are preferable in this sense. It is incorrect to say or write ‘the apartment is comprised of three rooms.’” (They clearly state that the usage is incorrect. And yet they include it as a definition anyway. Go figure.)

    To wrap up this section, here are three examples where the writers make precise and skillful use of comprise:

    “Comprising six essential programs, AMTECH Office Pro increases your competitive advantage, helps you win business and saves you time and money.” – AMTECH Power Software website, product description page

    “Crown Business Park is an exciting new development and will comprise high specification office, industrial and warehouse buildings along with bespoke design and build opportunities.” –  Barnfield Construction website

    “Serge Brunier is a French photographer and writer who has specialized in the stars. One of his most stunning works, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic view of the Milky Way, comprises more than a thousand photographs taken over the course of a year.” “Digital Pick: Starry Night” New Yorker (blog), May 20, 2010

  3. Podium – In August 2009 President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at Sen. Ted Kennedy’s funeral mass. It’s a moving and (as you would expect at this level) well-written speech. This otherwise note-perfect piece of prose, however, is marred by the President’s misusage of the word podium.

    Obama’s text, referring to Sen. Kennedy, reads as follows:

    “We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers’ rights or civil rights.”

    Obama and his speechwriters paint a vivid picture and they no doubt liked the alliteration of “pounding the podium.” Problem is, in the most widely accepted definition of podium, Sen. Kennedy would have to have fallen flat on his face to be “pounding the podium.”

    That’s because, according to Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “A lectern is the stand on which a speaker places his or her notes. A podium is the raised platform on which the speaker and lectern stand.” And in The Accidents of Style, Charles Harrington Elster, a nationally recognized authority on language and the author of eight books, writes, “The style manuals of The Associated Press and The New York Times support that time-honored distinction [lectern versus podium] and insist, as the latter puts it, that ‘a speaker stands on a podium and at or behind a lectern.’”

    For the final word on podium I turn to Garner’s Modern American Usage. This widely respected guide acknowledges that while using podium for lectern “has become commonplace…careful writers should avoid it.”

Careful writers, isn’t that what we all should aspire to be? Of course it’s one thing if you’re sending an email to a family member or friend. Another thing altogether if you’re –

  • posting content on the company website or blog
  • writing a white paper, case study or newsletter
  • giving a presentation at an industry conference
  • making the “big pitch” to the buying committee when your pitch is one of three competing pitches.

In the above instances and in all our business communications we want to put our best foot forward, and that calls for careful writing. Because careful writing preserves and enhances our credibility. Bryan Garner, writing in the preface to the third edition of his Garner’s Modern American Usage and alluding to those who urge wider acceptance of such disputed usages as presented in this article, has this to say:

“There aren’t just a few dozen trouble spots in the language, or even a few hundred. There are several thousand of them. Given the critical acumen of many readers, for a writer to remain unconscious of these pitfalls and write whatever sounds close enough will inevitably lead to a loss of credibility. Vague intelligibility isn’t the touchstone; precision is.”

Hone in? Comprised of? Using podium for lectern? If your objective is not only to communicate, but to communicate with a precision that preserves and enhances your credibility, you’ll forgo (not forego) these words and phrases and make every effort to…get it right when you write (or speak).

That’s my take. What’s yours?

© 2011 Ernest Nicastro

10 Responses to Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words

  • Hi Ernie-
    Great article with three commonly misused words. I have a chapter in my book dedicated to the most egregious errors I hear in marketing-land. These are not on my list — I’ll be happy to point people to to this post so they know what else to avoid and how to use the words properly.

    Just a quick additional note– in my church where I stand up to read the weekly reading, people call it a podium or a lectern — and of course both are wrong. In church (a Catholic church to be exact) the place from where the readings are proclaimed is correctly called an ambo.

    Hope you’re doing well!
    Felicia Slattery

  • Ernest Nicastro

    Glad you enjoyed the article, Felicia. So nice to have your lovely smile gracing my blog. Congratulations on your book and thanks for pointing people my way. Never knew that about “ambo.” And I attended Catholic church services for years. Things are good on this end. All the best to you!

  • Mmm. All this time I thought a podium was something that you stand at with your speech/notes sitting on. I feel like anytime I hear someone use the word from this point forward I will think back to reading this article and have a mental debate on if I should mention this to them. Thanks for helping me “hone my english?” is that right? Lol.

  • Ernest Nicastro

    “Hone my English?” Yes, I suppose that will work. Thanks for stopping by, Alice.

  • I knew about “podium” and “comprise.” “Hone,” not so much. Another word I saw incorrectly used today was “unchartered,” when the writer meant “uncharted.”

    A great related Website is Common Errors in English Usage (http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/ ), from Washington State University. Don’t get all googly eyed over the mid-1990′s look of the site itself, though.

    Great article … thanks!

  • Ernest Nicastro

    I appreciate the comment and the recommendation, Bob. And you’re very welcome. I’m sure I’ve used “comprise” and “hone” incorrectly in the past. But as a longtime member of Toastmasters I’ve been onto “podium” for a while (not awhile).

  • I hadn’t heard anyone misuse ‘podium’ before, but the other two are bugbears of mine!

    Other pet peeves include:

    * Use of the words “criteria” and “phenomena” as though they were singular, rather than the plurals of the word “criterion” and “phenomenon” respectively

    * Automated phone menu systems that ask me to “choose from one of the following four options”

    * Use of the word “diffuse” in the context of disarming a bomb (when in fact the brave person in question is actually “defusing” the device)

    And don’t get me started on punctuation, and the misuse of the possessive apostrophe!

    Tim

  • Ernest Nicastro

    Thanks for stopping by Tim. I’m with you on “criteria” and “phenomena” and “defusing.” I probably need some enlightenment on “choose from one of the following four options.” Please do me the favor and provide that, will you?

    Nice looking blog!

  • “Home in” was a new one on me, but it makes perfect sense. “Hone in” wasn’t a phrase I commonly use — not sure if I’ve ever even written it — but I’ll be sure to use it correctly in the future.

    RE: podium — being a Competent Toastmaster, I already knew that one well! :-)

    RE: “comprise” — the Random House usage notes state:

    “Comprise” has had an interesting history of sense development. In addition to its original senses, dating from the 15th century, “to include” and “to consist of ” ( The United States of America comprises 50 states ), comprise has had since the late 18th century the meaning “to form or constitute” ( Fifty states comprise the United States of America ). Since the late 19th century it has also been used in passive constructions with a sense synonymous with that of one of its original meanings “to consist of, be composed of ”: The United States of America is comprised of 50 states. These later uses are often criticized, but they occur with increasing frequency even in formal speech and writing.

    So this raises an interesting question… at what point does something change from an “incorrect” use of a word to “the meaning of the word has changed”. The meaning of words do change over time — it’s the natural evolution of language. At what point do we quit saying “You’re doing it wrong,” and instead say, “OK, I’ll use it the way everyone else is”?

  • Ernest Nicastro

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Scott. With regard to “comprise,” the battle is all but over. Bryan Garner lists five stages of verbal change in his usage guide and places “is comprised of” for “comprise” at stage four on the change scale.

    According to Garner, at stage four “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (the traditionalists that David Foster Wallace dubbed ‘snoots’: syntax nudniks of our time).”

    Then there’s the Mark Twain commentary about the difference between the “right word” and the “almost right word” being like the difference between “lightning and the lightning bug.” I’d put “is comprised of” in the lightning bug category.

    Finally, there’s always Mom’s thoughtful reply to keep in mind. You know the one I’m talking about don’t you? You asked her if you could do something and she said no. You said, “But Mom, everybody else is doing it.” And in her great wisdom she replied: “Well if everybody else goes and jumps off the bridge are you going to follow them?” ; )

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