If you’re an author, chances are you’ve had editors replace your carefully chosen words on multiple occasions. This may sometimes seem nitpicky or even subjective—but hear me out before you throw up your hands in despair.
It’s easy for writers to assume they know a word’s meaning, especially one they’ve seen used the same way many times. Plenty of usage errors slip into business writing and thrive for this very reason. Indeed, they become common usage—not to be confused with good or even correct usage, for example, “She will persuade you to adopt correct usage of words,” versus “she will convince you.” What’s the difference, you ask? “Persuade” pertains to actions while “convince” corresponds to beliefs.
Misusing words in your writing can tarnish your reputation as an intelligent thought leader; it can also lead to embarrassing misunderstandings.
To avoid errors of usage, the venerable Chicago Manual of Style recommends consulting a style or usage guide (such as Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage) in addition to the dictionary. Why? Because the dictionary isn’t always right.
So what are some common offences against good usage in business writing?
Comprise vs. comprised of
The Chicago Manual concedes that the phrase “comprised of” is increasingly common. Popularity, however, does not mean a phrase is standard, or an accepted choice. According to Fowler’s “Comprise has the whole as its subject and the parts as its object.” So in a sentence, “of” isn’t necessary; it’s implied. When used properly, the phrase “consists of” or “made up of” can be substituted for comprise.
The Economist provides a good example of the correct usage of “comprise” in a headline: “Too often juries comprise 12 confused men (and women).” In this case, the jury is the whole and the jurors are the parts. And if we apply the substitution test, the phrase “consists of” can be substituted here, though comprise is much more concise.
Home in vs. hone in
If you take a peek in the latest version of Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, you’ll see an entry for “hone in” citing its first use in 1965. But alas, just because a word or phrase is in the dictionary doesn’t mean that’s the way to go. So what to do? Crack open the latest edition of Fowler’s Modern Usage or seek the guidance of an expert.
In doing so, you’ll learn that “hone in” is often mistaken for “home in,” as in coming home or “coming closer and closer to a target,” such as homing pigeons. Hone is a different word that means to sharpen and is often employed when referring to skills or a strategy, as in this McKinsey article:
“The ability to push training participants to reflect, while also giving them real work experiences to apply new approaches and hone their skills, is a valuable combination in emerging markets.”
While Fowler’s notes that the phrase “hone in” has been around for nearly half a century, consider that by using hone in you’ll open yourself up to the cross fire of debate between editors and usage enthusiasts. The most common and accepted usage in business writing, and the use we adhere to at Leff, is simple. “Hone” your skills and “home in” on your target. Case closed.
Leverage vs. leverage
Hell hath no fury like an editor who sees “leverage” used incorrectly. Well, almost. The word leverage is thrown around a lot in business writing, often in verb form as in “to leverage synergies.” Fowler’s calls it a “widely disliked verb” that “may induce the editorial anxiety often caused by words when they move out of their original, limited, technical sphere.” Yikes.
Thus, to use the word properly, and avoid making your editor cranky, we suggest sticking with the accepted (and best) uses of the word leverage: “as a mechanical advantage gained by use of a lever” and “power to accomplish something through influence.” In addition, there is a third definition for the word leverage specific to finance, referring to the use of capital to increase a return on investment. In short, no one should “be leveraging” anything.
Hopefully by now I’ve persuaded you to not curse your editor next time he or she suggests another (and likely more correct) word choice. By taking the time to understand the accurate meaning of words, you can show that you take your own writing seriously.