Misused, abused and overused words – are you a culprit?

by Claire Wilson

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There are believed to be 171,146 words in use in the English language. Knowing them all would make you extremely clever, especially if you also know the 47,156 words we no longer use at all1. But nothing can make you sound less clever than using them incorrectly, especially in your copywriting.

That’s a trap many of us fall into. This might be because we’re simply repeating something we’ve heard to be part of the cool club, or we’re trying, but failing, to use lingo we think shows we know what we’re talking about. (A dangerous move if you’re in charge of copywriting for the annual report this year.)

And sometimes, the meaning of words is so ingrained we never even questioned whether we were using them wrong. Now even we’re guilty of some of these…

“I’m so full, I’m literally going to explode”

The word ‘literally’ has started to lose its meaning as we throw it around like there’s no tomorrow. Take the sentence above for example, there is no way someone would ‘literally’ explode from eating too much, therefore this sentence does not make sense.

Literally means ‘in actual fact’ and does not mean figuratively. The right way to use ‘literally’ would be to reverse a figurative phrase for an event that has actually happened. Much like these headlines do:

This little piggy went to market – literally

Vision scientists discover why humans literally don’t see eye to eye

We grow barley that’s out of this world – literally

You can only really use this copywriting trick if your tone of voice allows you to do so. If it does – great – but make sure someone else double-checks you’re using it correctly before your comments thread ‘literally’ self-combusts.

“I was telling my friend about my weekend, but he was completely disinterested”

We’re probably all familiar with the annoying feeling of trying to talk to someone but they seem a million miles away. Yet, it would seem that we’re not all familiar with the correct term for it.

Although someone may not seem interested in what you have to say, it’s incorrect to say that they are disinterested. The correct word you’d be looking for would be uninterested, as disinterested means unbiased. For example, it’s important that court cases are resolved by disinterested judges.

“Oh isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”

‘It’s like rain on your wedding day; it’s a free ride when you’ve already paid’

Chances are you’ve sung along to these lyrics of Alanis Morissette’s well-known song, Ironic, about various supposedly ironic situations?

Have you ever considered though that the situations mentioned throughout the song are, ironically, not actually ironic?

Lots of people misuse the word ironic, due to not understanding it means uncannily incongruent rather than inconvenient. Alanis Morissette’s song would make more sense if she sung about how it would be unfortunate if it were to rain on your wedding day!

A correct example of irony would be if a traffic warden received a parking ticket for forgetting to pay for their own parking. Or in content writing terms, noticing that you’ve spelt ‘spelling’ wrong.

Our own copywriting pet-peeves

Naturally, for a copywriting team, we opened up a conversation in the office about our own pet-peeves when it comes to misused, abused, and overused words.

Anna spoke about how people’s overuse of the word ‘amazing’ has diminished the word’s true meaning for her. For example, when you hear people describe their sandwiches as ‘amazing’, it’s hard to apply the same level of emotion to an object or event which genuinely ‘amazes’, e.g. a hearing aid that enables deaf people to hear again.

People mistaking specifically for pacifically is Darren’s most annoying malapropism, while Gemma contributed her personal favourite mishap of people believing that ‘to be ignorant’ meant you were ignoring someone. Now there’s an example of irony.

For me, it’s the overuse of the word ‘like’ that grinds my gears. Although the word is pleasant enough and useful in its place, e.g. ‘I like your dress’ or ‘I like your family…mostly’, its excessive and unnecessary use as a filler in conversation is irritating. For example, ‘I was like, he told me he was busy, but I was like confused because I didn’t think he had plans.’

What’s worse is that I’m probably guilty of saying “there’s nothing better than an amazing content strategy to make sure everyone is literally singing from the same hymn book”. Cringe. That’s why I think it’s important we’re all aware of how we use and abuse the English language, so that we, like, don’t all literally end up speaking (or copywriting) this way.

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