Are you a stickler for grammar? Or someone who couldn’t care less as long as your copy sells?
Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure:
The last thing you want as a copywriter is to look an idiot.
Because when you look an idiot then so do your clients. And that’s bad for business.
Now this isn’t some kind of spelling or grammar lecture.
Far from it.
High-quality content is so much more than simply following standard writing principles.
What’s more, English is a living language that’s continually evolving, where new words and phrases are entering our vocabulary all the time.
And so the notion that many of our new words and phrases are somehow bad English is, to me, utterly ridiculous.
At the same time, there comes a point where every writer and editor has to draw the line.
These are the words and phrases that:
- Really do NOT exist
- Will NEVER exist (by virtue of their stupidity)
- Are blatant incorrect use of English
- Will make any copywriter who uses them look like a clown
Here’s a selection of just five of the very worst offenders, although it has to be said there are many more:
As it happens, there is such a thing as a toothcomb and it refers to a comb-like dental arrangement found in certain animals. But one thing it definitely isn’t and that’s something for combing teeth.
What, of course, the writer actually means is a fine-toothed comb, namely something that conveys the idea of going through things in fine detail.
In times gone by, new cloth was hung out and stretched, or suspended, on a frame in order to prevent it from shrinking. This was known as tenting, because of the similarities to a tent. And the hooks used were known as tenterhooks.
So now you know the background to the phrase, there’s no excuse for incorrectly writing on tenderhooks ever again.
You often see the phrase a much sort-after location in property sales literature. But when you go in quest of something, you seek after it not sort after it.
So quite clearly the correct term to refer to something in demand is sought-after.
In the Throws Of
The correct form is in the throes of and it comes from the rather archaic word throe, which means a violent pain or struggle.
So when you’re in the throes of something, you’re going to considerable pain or effort to get through it.
You can say either regardless or irrespective. But one thing you cannot say is irregardless. If you do, you just end up looking stupid.
Now the most basic task of any copywriter is to clearly explain what’s on offer and why the target reader would want it. But all this is pointless if you undermine your trust and credibility with non-existent halfwit words and phrases.
And here’s the added bonus:
By avoiding these mistakes, not only will your writing sell more – but you’ll also keep the annoying grammar police off your back.
Have your say
What do you think? Tell us in the comment section below. Or suggest other non-existent words and phrases you’d like to add to our list.
In our next post: Not sure whether to have a blog or news feed as part of your content generation strategy? Our 3-point checklist will help you choose.
About the Author
Kevin Carlton is an IT copywriter and blogger based in Staffordshire in the UK. He is owner of freelance copywriting service Write Online, which helps technology companies get the most out of their online presence.
Kevin, awesome list! I am guilty of using tenderhooks in internal communications (informal emails and such), but thank goodness it’s never made it to public-facing, client-making materials.
Is there any way we could get rid of “positivity?” It’s in the dictionary, but that just has to be a mistake. It just has to be.
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Erica, I suspect ‘positivity’ has been around for a fairly long time already I’m afraid.
For example, I’ve heard the word used in a record that came out in the mid 1970s.
So I can’t see your wish being granted quite yet.
And, by the way, don’t we all make mistakes such as ‘on tenderhooks’ in our writing?
The list I’ve provided is just of some of those that I’ve learnt to avoid.
I’ll admit that I may have used irregardless while speaking, but not in writing.. I think. (Oddly enough, spell check thinks “irregardless” is a real word.)
I’m sure there are loads of others from all across the world, but I thought you might enjoy this about Americanisms in the UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14201796
I have my own pet peeves with some phrases (both in the US and Ireland), but items like #40 are used in the South. I guess it depends where you’re from.. maybe irregardless makes sense somewhere!
Craig, following your comment, I checked irregardless again in my Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
It is listed. I suppose it has to be, if it is so widely used now.
However, there is a note against the OED entry saying that the word is considered as incorrect usage. So it’s still very much a word we should all steer well clear of in our copy.
In relation to the BBC article about Americanisms in the UK, I guess it all boils down to where you’re saying them and whom you’re talking to at the time.
For example, what sounds natural and right on a sun-kissed beach in California might sound utterly ridiculous on a rainy November day in Manchester. And I’m sure that there are equally turns of phrase that we English use here that simply don’t sound right anywhere else.
Irregardless is the one that really gets me. Oh and just a pet peeve of mine… using utilize when the word use works just fine. (BTW it was Carol’s link party that got me here. What a great idea!)
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I totally agree with you about utilize Theresa. Why use a longer word when a shorter, simpler word will do the trick?
Nevertheless, I still do use utilize from time to time. But this is only when I want to avoid tedious repetition of the word use.
By the way, too right, Carol’s link party was a great idea. I only hope it helped everyone else as much as it helped me.
Great list! My latest pet peeve is writers who use “loose” when the proper word is “lose.” For example, to “loose” weight instead of to “lose” weight.
Yeah, Catherine, loose when lose is intended sticks out like a sore thumb.
These were great, thanks! Due to the fact that I’m rather young and just started using LinkedIn, I really appreciated this. My generation is definitely guilty of using words and phrases that miraculously, just appeared in our vocabulary (I’m extremely guilty of this too.) But, it’s all about learning!
I suspect the particular goofs I’ve listed here are fairly common across all generations.
Although the message within our copywriting is always more important than the spelling and grammar, the credibility of that message is undermined when we make these mistakes.
And so many people spell definitely as definately. So congrats on that Shannon.
Jeff, you can see why so many of the mistakes listed here would slip through the net of a spell checker.
But definately is definitely one that shouldn’t.
Great post Kevin!
Can I just tell you how much I hate the word “irregardless”? I am dumbfounded to hear professionals use the word, including a teacher at a local school that I know. The one I keep hearing these days is “supposantly” instead of “supposedly”. ARRRGGGHHH! Looks like it’s time for me to go for a run and lose this frustration :)
Mary, it seems that many people have a very strong aversion to irregardless. That’s why I felt compelled to include it in my list.
Ha! I’m happy to say I’ve never even seen most of these words or phrases. Except irregardless. Haven’t managed to avoid that one.
However, I came here to compliment you on your headline. “Halfwit” is a wonderful word. I’ve added it to my list of words-I-want-to-use-in-a-headline. So thanks.
Thanks, in particular, for your comment about the headline I’ve used here.
Of course, the headline is what makes or breaks any blog post, as it ultimately dictates whether people will even bother to read any further.
You’ve also reminded me to put halfwit in my own list. I really must use it again myself sometime.
Some that I dislike are:
1) I did it ‘on accident’ instead of “It was an accident”
2) ‘planning on’ instead of ‘plan to’
3) ‘went missing’ instead of ‘was missing’ or ‘disappeared’
4) ‘functionality’ instead of ‘function’ (Like you said, Why use a longer word when a shorter one works better)?
I must say I do occasionally use the likes of functionality and planning on in my copywriting. But this is nearly always just to avoid tedious repetition of the simpler phrases you mentioned.
interesting words/phrases. I never knew about tenterhooks. I can see how people can make these mistakes as they may just learn the words/phrases through listening.
Irregardless is another story. I hear that a lot in the countryside for some reason. I moved there from the city and I found the language quite different. I don’t know why but irregardless is used commonly.
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Dita, I totally agree that many people pick up these mistakes through listening.
It only takes one person to mishear a word and then it spreads like wildfire.
Probably the commonest of all of these are could of and would of.
One of the worse cases I’m aware of, however, is somebody who happens to think that nothink is a real word.
I’m sure sooner or later I’ll trip up badly on one of these.
Thanks for posting these. I love learning about these things that creep into our language. It is like the old game of telephone after some phrases become popular then they get twisted and repeated incorrectly. I knew most of them, but learned a couple of new ones too.
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Thanks for your comment.
Somewhere along the line I became alert to these through someone else, so it’s great to pass the knowledge on.
Kevin, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog, thank you. As a Trainer, it brought to mind my pet peeves, far too regularly seen in learners’ assignments:- ‘could of’, ‘should of’ and their close relative ‘would of’. That and their persistent use of ‘my roll in the organisation is . . .’ All these and more have me head-butting the desk in frustration. The growing trend for spelling phonetically drives me nuts!
I tend more to laugh now than get irritated.
But from an SEO copywriting perspective, spelling and grammar is very important.
If a visitor comes across a website that’s littered with proofos then chances are they’ll move on. That then means all your SEO efforts are for nothing.
*That* (proofos) is a word I’d never even thought of, let alone heard or seen! I like it – it perfectly describes what you’re talking about: grammar or spelling errors that clearly aren’t “typos”.
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Now proofo is one of those non-existent words that should be officially accepted into our language, as no other word will quite do.
I had a manager many, many years ago who was fond of telling me that my observation was a “mute” point. I never corrected her, because it would have been a moot point.
Other than when it’s my job to do so (such as when proofreading rather than copywriting), I’m not terribly fain to correct other people’s mistakes.
I prefer the mute approach, to avoid causing any offence.
This article was good for a laugh and I can definitely say that I hear many words phrases used these days that really push my buttons! It is so true that there is no point at which a language stops evolving.. but some of these common “words” are just misunderstandings or lack of knowledge. Would make me cringe to see them in copy!
It just so happens, Julia, that here in the UK there was a feature on the news this morning about spelling and grammar.
An Oxford professor was suggesting that we should change the official spelling of certain words, which people continually get wrong.
Now I don’t particularly have a problem with that.
But, of course, the point that I’m actually making is this: while certain common spelling and grammar mistakes do exist, it certainly doesn’t look good when you make them.
Kevin I couldn’t agree more!
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Hi Kevin, I’m still laughing at your graphic. LOL!
I have one question about words though. Is learnt a word? People use it a lot and I thought it was an incorrect version of learned, but I’ve been told it is a real word.
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Thanks for coming back for another read.
If I remember correctly, I got the picture from 123RF.com.
And, yep, learnt is a word. You can use either learnt or learned as the past participle of learn – whichever takes your fancy.
PS The Oxford Spelling Dictionary is the perfect reference source for double-checking such things.
Words that aren’t words, phrases that aren’t phrases and the sorry excuse, “you got what I meant”…!? I get tired of reading the accusation “Nazi” when someone accurately corrects a misspelled word or missed phrase.
Oh, and I came here via your link in your post, “Help! No-one ever comments on my blog!” (I’d have written “No one” because the hyphen looks out of place to me.)
Forgot to add that altogether, I like the post, the use of “proofo” (I, too, hope it makes it into the dictionary), and your point that “irregardless” is still as worthless now as when someone uttered it the first time.
Kendra, as you’re based in the US, I can see why you’d think no-one looks out of place. I suspect that variation isn’t widely used in North America.
Here in the UK both versions, no-one and no one, are acceptable.
Maybe I ought to adopt your preferred version, as it’s clearly more universal.
LOL No, don’t do that. When I wrote my comment, I thought it might be a style preference. So, keep on writing as you do. After all, America hasn’t a lock on the English language! (Don’t go there! :^D)
Kendra, I genuinely was thinking of making the switch to no one – as overall more people use it and I haven’t got a strong preference for one or the other.
The only reason I probably won’t change it is that you should always keep things consistent.
BTW I really appreciate it when people come back to my site to read my replies to their comments. So many thanks for that.
Kevin, I landed on your blog by following a link to “No one comments on my blog” and drifted over here. My problem is with the constant misuse of ‘compliment’ when referring to an item that complements something else!
When I worked as a copy-editor, I saw that mistake over and over again.
I often used to wish more people knew the difference – if only to save on correcting it every time.
And thanks for letting me know how you arrived at this post – it’s always useful to know how people find their way to particular pages.
I find “irregardless” to be very annoying. I once worked with someone who used it all the time. The “ir” prefix and the “less” suffix both attempt to negate “regard” making the word a double negative. Therefore the actual interpretation of “irregardless” should be “regard”, in which case why not just say regard? It’s easier to say.
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It’s been a while since I wrote this post. But I do remember a lot of other people also hated ‘irregardless’.
I think it’s because it just sounds incorrect – whether the word exists or not.
And your comment gives a good explanation as to why people subconsciously think this is the case.
‘Decimated’ … when the writer means obliterated. Arrrgh
‘Evacuated’ … writers sometimes suggest that people have been given enemas, but I suspect modern usage allows it now.
‘Chronic’ … was used instead of ‘severe’ in the past. Seems to have gone out of slang fashion.
During the recent UK storms, I’ve been hearing BBC reports about how people have been evacuated amid rising water levels; sounds very painful.
I also guess this is accepted usage now. But I’d always say homes have been evacuated to be on the safe side.
Not so bothered about decimated, even though it’s only meant to represent about 10% destruction, reduction or whatever. Somehow, the word sounds like what most people think it means.
And at least the words decimated, evacuated and chronic do exist. It’s when you use words that don’t, as with the examples in this post, that you really look a halfwit.
True! Decimated sounds like obliterated. I do sometimes make up words in speech
e.g. ‘scrumpled’ ( scrunched and crumpled).
Here’s a dumb phrase:”I could care less.” It means just the opposite of what you want to say.
As you say, this probably counts more as a dumb phrase than a non-existent word, such as toothcomb or tenderhook.
But that wouldn’t stop me from including it in this list.
The main reason I feel I can’t add it is that I’ve never actually come across it – in writing or conversation. But I’ll sure look and listen for it now.