How to Sound Smarter

The Reader's Digest Version of those rules for talking and writing--the ones you missed in high school

By Melissa DeMeo and Paul Silverman from Reader's Digest | February 2010

You almost never mean: Hopefully You almost always mean: I hope Why: Hopefully means “in a hopeful manner.” “I hope the boss lets us out early” and “Hopefully, the boss lets us out early” aren’t the same thing.

You almost never mean: More importantly You almost always mean: More important Why: More or most important is probably what you want. Only if you’re a pompous blowhard do you say things importantly.

How to Sound Smarter ©2010 Jupiterimages Corporation.

You never mean: Everyone has their grammar hang-ups You always mean: Everyone has his or her grammar hang-ups Why: Everyone, everybody, and close cousin each are singular, so words that refer to them should also be singular. Or, since we all have our grammar hang-ups, you could just rephrase the sentence.

You never mean: Between you and I You always mean: Between you and me Why: Between you and I sounds fancy, and therefore right, but don’t be so quick to belittle Cookie Monster (“Me want cookies!”). In this case, me is correct because it’s the object of the preposition between.

You almost never mean: Assessable You almost always mean: Accessible Why: A library is wheelchair-accessible. Your house is assessable by the county that taxes it.

You almost never mean: I feel badly You almost always mean: I feel bad Why: Is your sense of touch physically impaired (almost never) or are you feeling some guilt after screwing up (almost always)?

You never mean: Equally as well (important, etc.) You always mean: Equally well Why: The as isn’t necessary. “I speak Latin and pig Latin equally well.”

You never mean: The reason is because You always mean: The reason is that Why: The reason is that the word reason implies because. Likewise, why say “the reason why” when you can say “the reason”?

You almost never mean: I need to lay down You almost always mean: I need to lie down Why: This is another case where people think (wrongly) that a particular word sounds more “educated.” Lay and lie are not interchangeable. Lie doesn’t require an object: “I need to lie down.” But lay does: “I need to lay my head down.” Confusion kicks in because of the past tense of both verbs—lie becomes lay; lay becomes laid—but the usage stays the same.

You never mean: Chaise lounge You always mean: Chaise longue Why: People have been getting this wrong for at least a century. The proper phrase is French and translates as “long chair.”

You never mean: ATM machine, PIN number You always mean: ATM, PIN Why: Redundancy (“automated teller machine machine,” “personal identification number number”).

You almost never mean: Historical You almost always mean: Historic Why: In short, historic means “significant” (“a historic election”). But if you intend “occurring in or relating to history,” go with historical (think “historical data” or “a historical link between the two world wars”). By the way, it’s never “an historic/historical event.” The vowel sound “a” should precede a consonant sound (like the hard “h” in historic).

You never mean: The person that You always mean: The person who Why: A human is a “who.” Anything else (yes, including animals) is a “that.”

You never mean: Could of You always mean: Could have Why: This error pops up because of the similar pronunciations. But remember, every sentence needs a verb: “I could have written a better cover letter.”

You never mean: Most everyone You always mean: Everyone Why: Make up your mind: If you truly mean “every person,” use just everyone. If not, say most people.

You never mean: I feel nauseous You always mean: I feel nauseated Why: In strict terms, nauseous means “to cause nausea” (as in “a hateful, nauseous person”); nauseated means “afflicted with nausea” (as in “I’m nauseated”).

You never mean: Very unique You always mean: Unique Why: Unique things and people are one of a kind, absolute.

You never mean: For all intensive purposes You always mean: For all intents and purposes Why: Even if you do get it right, you don’t need this expression. It’s just filler.

You almost never mean: I literally laughed my head off You almost always mean: I laughed my head off Why: Literally means “actually” and is best reserved for real events.

You never mean: Merge together You always mean: Merge Why: The phrase is redundant (as are combinations like absolute necessity, free gift, and a pair of twins—unless you mean two sets of twins, that is).

You almost never mean: Orientate You almost always mean: Orient Why: Orientate is a word, but it means “to face east.” “The tour was designed to orient new students.”

You almost never mean: Impact You almost always mean: Affect Why: Impact shouldn’t be forced into service as a verb. No: “The decision impacts everyone.” Yes: “The decision affects everyone.”

You never mean: Off of You always mean: Off Why: Some words are perfectly fine on their own. “May I bounce an idea off you?”

You almost never mean: In order to You almost always mean: To Why: See above.

You never mean: Comprised of You always mean: Comprises Why: Comprises equals includes. You’d never say, “My grocery list includes of milk, eggs, and kiwis.” Same goes for comprises. (Use of with compose: “The sculpture is composed of wire hangers.”)

You never mean: Everyone has their grammar hang-ups You always mean: Everyone has his or her grammar hang-ups Why: Everyone, everybody, and close cousin each are singular, so words that refer to them should also be singular. Or, since we all have our grammar hang-ups, you could just rephrase the sentence.

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