Little mistakes, big consequences. And how to avoid them…

[Image courtesy of Ricardo Carreon at Flickr Creative Commons]

Just the other day, somebody said to me, ‘What exactly are you inferring?’ when I suggested that he might not be taking the best decision.

It stopped me dead in my tracks.

Why? Because I wasn’t inferring anything – he was. I was implying, but to explain the difference would have been to add insult to injury. So I bit my tongue, adopted my best diplomatic tone and smoothed ruffled feathers.

Every so often, it pays to get back to basics, and look at the little things that matter. In this case grammar, vocabulary and spelling, which can send out signals about other things. We all like to think that we can see beyond a simple mistake, and that it doesn’t really matter in this day and age.

What’s more, we’ve been told so often over the last few decades that we shouldn’t make value judgements about the way people speak or write that we think the same goes for us and our business.

But just because you cut other people slack when they make mistakes doesn’t mean that they’ll return the favour.

And if somebody picks up on a clanger you’ve committed in print or on the web, it might just go viral if it’s funny or embarrassing enough, so you’re receiving attention for all the wrong reasons. Or worse, a potential client might just think that sloppy writing means sloppy service.

Way back in 2008, I wrote two posts about easily confused words. Years on, the confusion continues, with not just those words by many others. So I thought I’d return to the topic, and disentangle a few other common ones.

  1. complementary / complimentary
    These two words are easy to mix up, as they’re very similar, and actually have a common Latin origin (don’t worry – we’re not going to go there). But it’s important to get them right.

    Complement is to do with making something complete. So we talk about a ship’s complement (the full number of sailors) or say that white wine is the perfect complement to fish.

    The adjective complementary follows through on that sense, as you see in complementary medicine – alternative therapies that work with and extend traditional medicine.

    Compliment, on other hand, is to do with praise (we receive many compliments from our clients). Complimentary means flattering or full of praise, or – and this is where lots of confusion occurs – free/given as a gesture (a complimentary weekend for two).

  2. lie / lay
    There’s no easy way around this one, so if in doubt, check it out. The confusion arises because there are three linked, but separate, verbs: lie, lie (no, that’s not a mistake) and lay. And the past tense simply piles confusion on top of confusion, so let’s take a step back.

    Lie (1) means not to tell the truth. So I lie today, and I lied yesterday (a hypothetical example, you understand, as I’m the most truthful person you could ever hope to meet).

    Lie (2) means to be in a horizontal position. So I lie on the bed and go to sleep every night. But last night, I lay on the bed, because that’s the past tense. Still with me? Don’t worry, just one more to come.

    Lay means to set something down. So you can lay down the rules, or lay the table. If you did that yesterday, you laid down the rules, or laid the table.

  3. forego / forgo
    I recently read a story about a CEO who was intending to forego his bonus, as the company results were so dismal. What struck me, though, was not the magnanimity of the gesture so much as the mistake in the headline.

    The verb forego simply means to go before or to precede. You hardly ever see it used in this form, though. Far more common are foregoing (the foregoing conditions apply to all suppliers) and foregone (as in foregone conclusion).

    Forgo means to do without something – which is what our chief exec was doing, when he decided not to take the money and run. Since forego is rarely if every used, this is an easy one to get right: in almost all cases, it’s forgo.

  4. hone/ home
    This one is very common, though it’s easily avoided. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people talking about honing in on things, from USPs to key messages, from target markets to customer needs.

    In its literal sense, hone means to sharpen something – usually a knife. By extension, you can sharpen your skills or even your body.

    When you’re zeroing in on something, you need to use home, usually followed by in and on. Whenever I have a moment of doubt (they do happen) I think of  a homing pigeon flying straight back to to its coop. It’s homing in on that point. By definition, honing must mean something else. A simple but effective way to remember.

  5. podium / lectern
    And finally, here’s one for your inner pedant. It’s also controversial, as (a) American usage differs from British and (b) usage is fluid, even on this side of the Pond – but here goes anyway.

    podium is something you stand on, not at. If you cast your mind back to your Latin and Greek (just kidding) you’ll know that its root comes from foot (but seriously: think pedal, pedestrian, podiatrist etc.). So it’s a stage or a platform.

    lectern, on the other hand, is a tall narrow stand on which you put your notes/speech for a presentation. Again, the root is Latin, and comes from the verb to read. But as I said, this one is changing. Still, it’ll impress your friends at dinner parties.

Misuse of these or any other words doesn’t constitute a cardinal sin in the world of marketing. People will know what you mean, even if you don’t say what you mean. But they may just, at some subliminal level, think a little bit less of you for making the mistake.

And the very last thing you want them to do is infer bad service from bad writing.

Just think of the implications.