11 Grammar Mistakes That Make You Sound Like a Pompous Jerk

Avoid being the emperor with no clothes

Avoid being the emperor with no clothes

I’m a firm believer that rules are meant to be broken, and stringent members of the grammar police tend to be an annoying bunch. But truly bad grammar can diminish your reputation, make you appear careless, and cost you money through lost opportunities. While the Internet is awash with blog posts on avoiding basic grammar mistakes that “make you look dumb,” perhaps the most grating errors are those that come with a side of pomposity.

These days, a more conversational style of writing is often preferred, and the only thing worse than a grammar mistake is one that gives the impression you’re trying too hard. Avoid the grammar equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes by steering clear of the following grandiloquent errors:

1. A or An historic occasion?
This one is surprisingly common. The article “an” appears before words that begin with a vowel sound, and while there are many words that begin with a silent “H” (e.g., honor, hour, etc.), “historic” is not one of them. Politicians are fond of marking “an historic occasion” in their speeches, and they are wrong.

Correct: “It is an honor to speak to you to mark a historic milestone in our company’s history.”

2. Throw out the verbiage
Verbiage, often misspelled verbage, is often used as a fancy synonym for “wording” (e.g., “please help me with the verbiage of this statement”). In fact, the primary definition of verbiage is “a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content.” It means wordiness – something PR pros surely try to avoid! There is a secondary definition for verbiage that means phrasing or diction, but because of the primary definition most grammar guides suggest avoiding its use for that meaning.

3. Which instead of that
I once had a client contact tell me she didn’t like the word “that” – she felt the word “which” sounded more professional in all instances, and asked me to make this universal substitution. After I recovered from the shock, I was forced to awkwardly explain why I felt proper grammar was a better choice.

“That” is used for essential clauses, while “which” is used for non-essential (also called restrictive and non-restrictive). For example, in item #1 above we state “The article ‘an’ appears before words that begin with a vowel sound” – this is a complete thought, and substituting “which” for “that” would be inappropriate. Quick cheat: “which” often follows a comma.

4. In regards to
In attempts to sound formal, some employ the phrase “in regards to,” such asin regards to your last email. The correct use is “in regard to,” but an even better option is to opt for plain language and say “regarding,” “about” or “concerning” instead.

5. Misuse of “whom”
It seems some people believe using “whom” whenever possible makes them sound smart. Of course, there are only certain instances when “whom” should be used over “who” – and not knowing the difference can sound like nails on a chalkboard to your audience.

“Whom” is only used when you are referring to the object of a clause, as opposed to the subject. If you struggle with this one, check out Grammar Girl’s “trick” for keeping who vs. whom straight.

When stated correctly, “whom” is often used to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. But even though this is proper, consider whether an alternate sentence structure would work better. “To whom shall I send the email?” is grammatically correct, but sounds a bit flowery to the modern ear.

6. Using e.g. and i.e. interchangeably

“E.g.” and “i.e.” are abbreviations for Latin terms, and – though often used similarly – do not mean the same thing. “E.g.” means “for example,” while “i.e.” means “that is.” For example: “We will be targeting relevant bloggers (e.g., Joe Jones, Sue Smith, etc.) as part of our outreach, as well as traditional outlets (i.e., broadcast news and print publications).”

An easy way to remember this is to note that “example” starts with “e.” And while we’re on the topic, in each instance there should be a period after each letter, followed by a comma.

7. Are you nauseous?
Many people try to avoid the TMI of “sick to my stomach” (or worse), so they state they’re nauseous. Nauseous means you are causing nausea – and you probably don’t want to send meeting regrets by telling your client you’ll be making the attendees ill! The correct word is nauseated.

8. Don’t be passive about grammar
Though not grammatically incorrect, passive voice is definitely a mistake for PR pros. Active voice is more powerful, concise and clear.

For example, “The address will be given by the CEO at noon” is passive, while “The CEO will give the address at noon” is active. Or, “The interview was handled by the spokesperson” (vs. “The spokesperson handled the interview”).

9. Irregardless, you are wrong
Some use “irregardless” to mean “without regard,” but the correct word in this instance is “regardless.” “Regardless” is defined as having or showing no regard; heedless; without concern as to advice, warning, etc.

10. Flaunt your knowledge
Does the rebel flaunt or flout the rules? Flaunt is to parade or display oneself conspicuously, defiantly or boldly. Flout is to treat with disdain, score or contempt. Don’t flout the correct use of flaunt and flout.

11. A final factoid
The suffix –oid means resembling or having the appearance of. This would make a “factoid” something resembling a fact, or an inaccurate statement. It is better to replace “factoid” with clearer language, such as “an interesting fact.”

These are just a few of our peeves – what are yours? What grammar rules give you trouble, and which grammar mistakes send you over the edge? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Great list. I would add using “myself” instead of “I” or “me” and using “comprised of” instead of “composed of.”

  • Good ones! “Myself” seems especially rampant these days. Thanks, David.

  • Jen

    Excellent list. I find the incorrect use of homophones both maddening and sometimes hilarious. If you’re going to confuse “bear” and “bare” in a sentence, I reserve the right to giggle. It’s surprisingly common to see these mistakes in writing.

    And don’t even get me started on “I could of” or “I would of” instead of “could’ve” and “would’ve.” Makes me crazy.

  • Nice additions, Jen — being unintentionally funny is usually not what we’re going for in our business writing! J

  • marydemingbarber

    This is a great list. I would add the misuse of me/I which was always one of the first things we seemed to learn. And, it’s easily corrected (by removing the others in the list and seeing if me/I sounds better).

  • marydemingbarber

    That reminds me or another of mine…I’ve got. What’s funny is that it was the headline for another list today. “25 Common Words That You’ve Got Wrong.” It’s a good list but “you have got wrong” isn’t the best grammar in the headline. (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/25-common-words-that-youve-got-wrong.html)

  • This is a great list, Kellye! A few that get me, along with what’s already been mentioned:

    persay instead of per se
    unphased instead of unfazed
    using I when it should be me: “schedule a time to meet with my partner and I” rather than “my partner and me”

    It’s more fun to laugh about this stuff than get mad, but it’s always nice to commiserate!

  • Jen

    Ha! Your “per se” reminds me of seeing wa-la instead of voila.

  • Thanks, Casey! Wow, I’ve never seen “persay” – that is a doozy. J

  • Oh yes- I think it’s because our first grade teachers corrected us to say “Mary and I played outside” instead of “Me and Mary played.” So as adults, many people say “I” at every opportunity.

    Your trick is the same one I use: “Send the email to Mary and me” is correct, because you would say “Send the email to me,” not “Send the email to I.”

  • Kristie Aylett

    Great post, Kellye! Can’t wait to share with my PR Writing students! Among my numerous pet peeves are the use of anxious when folks mean eager, and the growing use of “got” instead of have or bought (e.g., I got a burger for lunch).

  • Thanks, Kristie – *waving hello to your students!*

  • Kristen

    Wonderful post! I am on a crusade against the incorrect use of the reflexive case, particularly the word “myself.” For example – “If you have questions, please contact John or myself.” Using the rule stated above, take out John and you have a ridiculous statement. I think people have the funniest notions about not using the word “me” – I think that first grade teacher is indeed to blame!

  • David De Castro

    What about the proper way to pronounce often? An audible “t” sounds pretentious and is just wrong.

  • Thanks, Kristen! The trick is super-easy – wish more people knew about it.

  • I think the audible “t” has made its way into dictionaries as an alternate pronunciation because of it’s usage, but the silent “t” is much preferred. Ain’t is also in the dictionary now, but that doesn’t make it right!

  • I’m still seeing PR professionals use “you’re” when they mean “your” and vice versa. Why does this seem so darn difficult to get right, and why do the offenders seem to think it doesn’t matter? They tend to be the same people who think any word ending in an “S” needs an apostrophe. No, they do not, including CEO’s (when referring to more than one) and 1960’s (when referring to a decade).

  • Nana

    I work in a business environment, and I frequently read emails from people trying to use business language, but are abusing the English language. Using ‘myself’ in place of ‘me’, ‘insure’ and ‘ensure’ being used interchangeably, and using clichéd phrasing (e.g. ‘you will find enclosed’, ‘in regard to’, ‘as per our conversation’, ‘please feel free to contact should you’). Most people don’t appreciate condescending language. Just say what you mean, and then edit out half of it because it is unnecessary.

  • Rini

    Great post! Other mistakes that are surprisingly common is saying “flush out these ideas” instead of flesh out. Or “until you don’t” do something instead of saying “until you do something.”

  • This is a funny observation (about the same people making these two mistakes)! Reminds me of this old scene from Friends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STYDAb_iCjg&feature=kp 🙂

  • Thanks, Nana – this is a great point. In many cases, the reader may feel you’re being condescending. Perhaps it would be helpful for these folks to know that the top execs at Fortune 500 companies typically write the shortest and most to-the-point emails.

  • Hi Rini- nice additions, thanks! “Flushing out” the ideas means something very different, doesn’t it?

  • Love it! There is a fun meme making the rounds, a book cover which reads: “Grammar: The Difference Between Knowing Your Shit, and Knowing You’re Shit.” My friends who liked or laughed at this revealed a lot (not alot, thank you) about their own language skills, in a good way!

  • Nana, I share your frustration over this one. This is how the perfectly good word “use” got shoved aside in favor of “utilize,” which makes me cringe every time i read it.

  • What a great list, thanks!

    I agree with other commenters that homophones are commonly misspelled these days. The obvious your / you’re in particular, which is so prevalent on social media, I don’t think kids have a chance of ever getting it right.

  • Thanks, Karen! You raise a good (and sad) point – kids today have a lot more poor examples of grammar to distract them from what’s proper. Hats off to the parents and educators fighting the good fight!

  • Amy Gray

    I HATE “utilize”. Very pretensious!

  • Amy Gray

    A couple of my pet peeves: “I’ll see if I can’t get that done.” What? How about you see if you CAN get it done! And “I could care less”. That means you care, when the intent is obviously the exact opposite.

  • That’s funny, Amy – your peeves are exactly the same as my mom’s! When I was a kid, if I said “I could care less,” she’d say “good.” 🙂

  • vada28 .

    Where to begin?
    “The reason why.” A reason IS a why, so this is annoyingly redundant. Just say “a reason.”
    “Chomping at the bit.” Nope — the original idiom is “champing at the bit.”
    “I won’t step foot in there.” Nope — it’s “I won’t set foot in there.”

  • vada28 .

    The word “literally” has run amok — figuratively. That Rick guy on “Pawn Stars” uses literally 4-5 times a show, always as a way to add emphasis but always incorrectly in context. … He also uses the word “like” so often that he sounds like a teenage girl. The word “like,” when used with no real meaning, is lethal to the appearance of any kind of intelligence. Thank you, California and your Valley Girls….

  • I saw a marketing email from a conference once that promised attendees they would leave with their “brains literally on fire.” All I could think is, that would hurt! J

  • Anne Tommasi

    I see mixing up it’s and its all the time. Former is a contraction, Latter possessive.

  • Yes, that happens far too often!

  • Joey Desormeaux

    Uh oh, mixed up possessive and the verb here :O

  • That will teach me to respond to comments too quickly! Yes, I see the irony – thanks for pointing it out. I fixed it.