In the early episodes of Inside PR, we often presented a segment called “PR Words to Banish.” Regular listener Luke Armour then suggested a number of new and improved titles for the segment and thereafter it’s been known as “Inside PRoper English.” Why cover English usage and grammar on Inside PR? Well, we communicate for a living. We believe part of our role as communications professionals is to protect and promote the very language we use to do our job. Not to get too sanctimonious about it, but in a way, we should all consider ourselves to be stewards of English. In light of the state of our language and the daily assaults and indignities it suffers, the more stewards, the better. With that in mind, we offer below the common grammar gaffes, invented words, and usage mistakes covered in Inside PR.


IPR #37: “Imply” and “Infer”

Contrary to popular belief, these two terms are not interchangeable. The ability to “imply” is limited to the speaker or writer, and cannot be done by the listener or reader. On the other hand, the ability to “infer” is enjoyed only by the reader or listener. In short, “imply” and “infer” are not synonyms.

IPR #36: “That” vs. “Who”

Another common mistake. If the subject of the sentence is a person, “who” should be used, not “that.” For instance: “She is the new PR consultant who just joined the firm.” We often hear this kind of sentence with that used instead. On the flip side, companies are things not people and therefore take that not who.

IPR #35: Singular or Plural?

“The group of PR professionals is at the conference.” “A number of PR professionals is in the room.” Believe it or not, and despite how clunky these may sound, “is” is technically correct in both sentences. In each case, “is” is modifying a singular noun, “group” and “number.” Remember to ensure that your verb (in these examples, “is”) modifies the appropriate element of the sentence’s subject. Other singular nouns that seem like they should be modified by the plural form of the verb (but shouldn’t be!) would include “team,” “membership,” and “union.” It may sound awkward to go with “is,” but it’s correct.

IPR #34: “That” and “Which”

The classics keep on comin’. Many communicators use “which” in an ill-conceived attempt to bring a certain formality and gravitas to their prose. It usually also brings errors. “Which” is only used when it begins a completely separate thought in a sentence. “Yesterday morning I went to the news conference, which was at a downtown hotel.” You could eliminate the entire clause starting with “which” and the sentence would still work. That’s the test. Otherwise, “that” should be used. “It’s the news release that (not which!) should be issued today, not the media advisory.”

IPR #33: “Lead” and “Led”

Another classic. “Lead” is a heavy metal and the business end of the lowly pencil. It is not the past participle of the verb, “to lead.” “Yesterday, he lead the team into battle” is simply wrong. Always has been, always will be. “Yesterday, he led the team into battle.” Yes.

IPR #32: “Presently” and “Currently”

Okay, this is admittedly a tad esoteric but my stockpile of grammar and usage gaffes seems to be running low. If you’re really a stickler for proper English usage, let it be known that “presently” is not a synonym for “currently.” In fact, the true definition of “presently” actually contradicts the meaning of “currently.” Despite its very common misuse, “presently” means “in a short time” or “soon” and NOT “at this time.” (As this problem exists currently, I hope it will be remedied presently.)

IPR #31: “Complement” and “Compliment”

“Compliment” is so often misused that if I were the word “complement,” I’d have developed some kind of a complex by now. “Complement” is defined as something that “completes, makes up a whole, or brings to perfection.” For example, “media relations complements the advertising and direct mail in the marketing plan.” “Compliment” simply means “an expression or act of courtesy or praise.” Be careful not to confuse them or compliments on your writing may be in short supply.

IPR #30: “Enervate”

Though not a word you hear every day, it is misused often. Many communications professionals I encounter use “enervate” as a synonym for “energize.” As in: “After that great brainstorming session I’m totally enervated and raring to go!” (Insert negative buzzer sound here.) Despite how it sounds, “enervate” actually means almost the opposite of “energize.” With its roots in the Latin term “nervus” meaning “sinew,” “enervate” really means “to weaken or deplete of strength.” Interesting… (at least to me)

IPR #29: Francis Wooby and “Decimate”

Our friend Francis Wooby, from Iqaluit, Nunavut in Canada’s far north, checks in with a common malapropism. Thanks Francis.

Thanks to Don Butler who suggested we cover “decimate” in Inside PRoper English. Decimate is usually used to mean “to inflict great destruction or damage.” Most English usage experts now accept this definition, as in “the defence corps of the Toronto Maple Leafs was decimated by injuries.” However, the original meaning of the word is much more precise. Decimate originally referred to the killing of every tenth person (hence the “deci” prefix), a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. (Although if you were the one in ten, you’d probably consider it to be “great destruction or damage.”)

IPR #28: “Less” vs. “Fewer”

Another classic. “Less” is used incorrectly almost contantly. “That’s one less thing to worry about.” (Wrong.) “There were less questions at the news conference than I was expecting.” (Wrong.) When you’re talking about a group of individual items or units (e.g. “things,” or “questions” in the two examples above), “fewer” is the correct word. “Less” is wrong in those instances. If you’re talking about something as an aggregate (i.e. not divided into units), like “water,” “budget,” or “energy,” “less” is the correct term. For instance, “There was less water than we expected.” “He had less energy than I did.” It’s not necessarily an easy concept to grasp. The following are all correct: “less budget” but “fewer dollars,” “less milk” but “fewer glasses of milk.” I’m sure there are clearer ways to explain this one but I hope this at least approaches clarity.

IPR #27: “Flesh out” vs. “Flush out”

Thanks to Andrew Findlater for providing this week’s IPE contribution. When you’re talking about building the details into a framework PR plan, the term to use is “flesh out” the plan, as in put flesh on the bones. For some reason, “flush out” is often used instead, which in my mind is what you do with bad ideas. “Flush out” also works if you’re hunting grouse or pheasant on an English country estate and they’re hiding in the woods. If you mean adding detail to a plan or idea, stick with “flesh out.”

IPR #26: “Between” vs. “Among”

Another classic. “Between” is often used when in fact “among” ought to be. To follow the strict definition, “between” can only be used when it’s modifying only two objects. “There was a telephone conversation between the PR professional and her client.” If there are three or more objects in the play, “between” should be replaced with “among” as in “The consultants divided the client work up among the three of them.” (Not between!) Yes, some weak-kneed dictionaries now appear to accept the misuse of “between” but we shouldn’t.

IPR #25: “Anxious” vs. “Eager”

Too often people use the word “anxious” when they really mean “eager.” “Anxious” means troubled, apprehensive, concerned, disquieted, while “eager” means having intense desire, or showing keen interest. While I am anxious about the state of our language, I am eager to share these modest observations to help protect and promote PRoper English.

IPR #24: “None”

This is an interesting little word that is often incorrectly used with the plural verb of being. As in the famous but gramatically flawed name of the popular Agatha Christie novel: “And Then There Were None.” The word “none” literally and explicitly means “not one.” Therefore the singular form of the verb of being should be used. The mystery novel should have been entitled: “And Then There Was None.” Spoken correctly, it sure sounds strange because through its almost universal misuse, the wrong now sounds right.

IPR #23: “Tenet versus Tenant”

“Tenet” is a neat little word that means “doctrine,” “principle,” or “belief.” For example: “Transparency is a founding tenet of social media.” Unfortunately, many people mistakenly use the word “tenant” instead of “tenet.” Just think of me as your landlord of the house of PRoper English.

IPR #22: “Reticent”

Another oft-misused word. I often hear “reticent” employed when the speaker really means “reluctant.” Reticent is not a synonym for reluctant. Reticent actually means tightlipped, quiet, not talkative, uncommunicative. “When asked what PR strategy he would recommend, David ‘the witty one’ Jones was reticent.”

IPR #21: “Penultimate”

Here’s a word that is often misused. Penultimate is commonly assumed to mean “ultra-ultimate” or “mega-ultimate” when in fact it means nothing of the kind. Penultimate literally means “next to last” or “second last.” So if you’re at the movies watching the second-last showing of Snakes on a Plane that day, you’re at the penultimate showing.

IPR #20: “Me and I”

Messing up the subjective and objective forms of the first person singular is one the most common grammatical errors in the history of English. If you are part of the subject of the sentence, use the subjective form. E.g. “David and I are recording IPR tonight.” If you are actually the object of the sentence, you use the objective form. E.g. “Please join David and me for the next episode of Inside PR.” That’s the theory. The easiest way to get it right is simply to remove the other person from the sentence. You would never say “Please join I for the next episode of Inside PR.” or worse, “Me is recording IPR tonight.” Take out the other person in the sentence and you’ll choose the correct form.

IPR #19: “Reason why…”

We hear these two words together all the time. “That’s the reason why we undertook media relations.” In short, it’s redundant to combine “reason” and “why.” Use one or the other, but not both. “That’s the reason we undertook media relations” or “That’s why we undertook media relations.”

IPR #18: “Utilize and Use”

We don’t know of a single instance when “utilize” cannot be replaced with the cleaner, shorter, and simpler word, “use.” Often, it seems that people choose “utilize” just because it’s longer and may seem more impressive. Yes it’s longer, but no, it’s not more impressive. We love interesting words that fit the situation, but don’t just use them for effect. Keep it simple. Short words wield power and impact (by the way, that’s the correct use of “impact,” as a noun, not a verb).

IPR #17: “Moot versus Mute”

Yes, it happens. “Moot” is a term that literally means “of no practical importance, insignificant.” “Mute,” on the other hand, simply means “unable to speak.” So when you hear people say (and they do and will), “it’s a mute point,” they really mean “it’s a moot point.” For them, knowing the difference is clearly moot.

IPR #16: “Fulsome”

Contrary to popular belief, “fulsome” is not a synonym for “fuller,” although by dint of misuse, some weak-kneed dictionaries have come to accept this illegitimate definition. “Fulsome” actually means “cloying” or “disgustingly fawning,” as in “the sychophant responded with fulsome praise.” If you mean “fuller,” just go with “fuller.” (The person who throws “fulsome” around instead, also likely chooses “utilize” when “use” would always suffice.)

IPR #15: “Comprise and compose”

This is a classic. I would contend that the word “comprise” is used incorrectly about 90 percent of the time. I very rarely hear it as it is supposed to be used. “Comprise” is not, I repeat, is not a synonym for “compose,” but in fact means “include.” In other words, the sentence, “The committee is comprised of three PR professionals.” is simply wrong. Using “comprise” correctly, the sentence should read, “The committee comprises three PR professionals.” It only sounds strange because the correct useage of “comprise” is so rare!

IPR #11: “Deliverable”

There simply is no such word. This “nonword” has been invented by those too lazy to ask “What are we expected to deliver?” rather than “What’s our deliverable?” The same is so for a similar word commonly used in government, “announcible,” which simply means, whatever is being announced. Ughh! (I don’t think this is a word either but rather an exclamation of frustration.)

IPR #8: “Leverage”

Leverage is noun, not a verb. Leverage is something you have, not something you do. Too often we hear this word misused as a verb, as in “Let’s leverage our profile to drive sales.” Wrong. “Let’s use our profile as leverage to drive sales.” Right.

IPR #6: “Impactful”

Where do we begin. There is no such word. If it has already started to creep into dictionaries, it’s because too many PR and advertising people are using it. Stop it right now!