Avoiding the Mire of Misused Words
We here at Association Management Center love the way a good inspirational quote can lift your spirits and jumpstart your motivation (“Achieve What You Believe,” anyone?).
But, in my opinion, there’s one inspirational quote, commonly attributed to Mark Twain, that too often is left off of calendars and Instagram photos—and it’s particularly important for any association professional who produces content: “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large one—‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Of course, if you say the latest member research has “peaked” your interest instead of “piqued” it, the consequences likely aren’t going to be as immense as literal lightning. But even seemingly small errors in your word choice still can catch the notice of readers and give potential members or supporters the wrong idea about your organization.
Still not sure if its eg, ie, or option C? Check out a few of the most commonly misused phrases—and clarification on their proper use—below.
Allow vs. enable
If I had to choose just one, I would say this is the most common error I see in writing. And although we’ve come to think of them as being essentially the same, these two words have very different meanings.
Allow means to “give (someone) permission to do something” or to “give the necessary time or opportunity for, as in, “I hope my parents allow me to stay out late just this once” or “We’ve allowed 15 minutes at the end of the meeting for questions.”
Enable means “to give (someone or something) the authority or means to do something,” as in, “The new software enables me to process orders more efficiently.”
Generally speaking, I would say, when in doubt, avoid allow. When it comes to marketing copy, outreach to members, and other content commonly distributed by associations, nine times out of 10, the word you really need is “enable.”
Compose vs. comprise
These two words often are used interchangeably, likely because they do have similar meanings. But the way each is used is almost as distinct as the insects and illumination to which Twain referred.
Compose means to “make up,” as in, “My board is composed of members of my association.”
Comprise means “to include, contain, or consist of,” as in, “The host hotel comprises 174 sleeping rooms for conference guests.”
Does “comprise” sound a little funny to you when used this way? That’s because “comprised of” has been part of the common vernacular for centuries—despite the protestations of linguistics experts everywhere.
Counsel vs. council
This is a particularly important distinction for association professionals, who often work with both counsels and councils.
Counsel can refer to a legal advisor or advice you have received. In the verb form, means “to advise.”
Council means an assembly of advisors (or, you could say, an assembly of “counsels”).
Complement vs. compliment
If one of your association members tells you he loves the way your scarf goes with your jacket, then you’ve just received a compliment about a great complement. Still confused? Just remember these definitions:
Complement means either “to complete by supplementing,” when used as a verb, or is something that “completes by supplementing,” when used as a noun. So you could say that the perfect complement to a member breakfast is bacon because it complements eggs so well.
Compliment, by contrast, means “praise” in both its noun and verb forms.
Discrete vs. discreet
If you’re hoping to keep some exciting association news under wraps, you’re really going to want to pay attention to the distinction between these two words.
Discrete means “separate,” as in, “The storyline of Harry Potter is retold in eight discrete movies.”
Discreet means “careful or circumspect in one’s speech or actions” or “prudent,” as in, “The results of the election are in, but the winners will have to be discreet until the good news is announced.”
eg vs. ie
Even seasoned grammarians sometimes struggle with this distinction—but for all the trouble these four little letters cause, the secret to knowing the difference is actually pretty simple.
eg means “for example;” ie means “that is.”
In my experience the best way to remember this is to look at the first letter: Are you dealing with a list of examples of a particular thing? Use eg. Could the two little letters be replaced with the phrase “in other words”? Use ie.
Of course, new words to accidentally misuse are always cropping up—after all, does anyone really know the difference between “bae” and a “boo”?—but tackling these common culprits will go a long way toward making every one of your communications clearer and more captivating. Still curious or need more clarification? Just reach out to the experts here at AMC with your questions—we’re always happy to complement what you learn here with more information!
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