Thursday, March 15, 2012

Check the dictionary to avoid embarrassing yourself

Clear writing requires diligence in the use of the dictionary. Before you use a word that you are unsure of, look it up. And don’t say you’re beyond all that; even writers and editors at major newspapers embarrass themselves by ignoring this rule.


For example, consider the following paragraph, which appeared in a recent Wall Street Journal article about how CEOs use their time:

“The more direct reports a CEO had correlated with more, and longer, internal meetings, the researchers found. Rather than foisting off responsibilities to other managers, CEOs with more direct reports may be more hands-on and involved in internal operations, they said.”

Apparently the writer of the article thought delegating was too ordinary a word; she preferred foisting. But she neglected to look it up and, as a result, made two mistakes:

She used the word incorrectly, by adding off. Many people who don’t use dictionaries add off to foist because they confuse foist with fob off.

And she applied the word incorrectly. If she had known that foisting is delegating deceitfully or coercively, she would have realized that, in any company, the CEO is the one person who never has to resort to foisting. Every single person in the company is subordinate to him! Whenever he wants to delegate a responsibility, all he has to do is say so.

The Takeaway: Before you use a word or phrase that you are not sure of, look it up in a dictionary. This advice is especially important when you think you are about to be very clever; the more you think that, the more likely you are to embarrass yourself.

See disclaimer.

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