26 Words (and Phrases) That Make You Sound Stupid
Big words, business jargon, and hyperbole intended to pump up your language only have the opposite affect. Check yourself before using any of these.
“Irregardless”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
There’s no such word as “irregardless.” The word you’re looking for is “regardless.” Here are 15 other words people say aren’t real, even though they are.
“Try and”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Although “try and” may feel like a natural thing to say, “try to” is grammatically correct. We should all try to use proper grammar if we want to sound smart.
“Ain’t”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Despite the fact that people have been using this word for around 250 years, it’s best reserved for times when you want “to catch attention and to gain emphasis,” according to Merriam Webster. “Although widely disapproved as nonstandard, and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t is flourishing in American English,” says the dictionary.
Overly-complicated phrasesNicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Put away the thesaurus—using long, complicated words isn’t a good way to impress people. The aptly-named study “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” from Princeton University, concluded that using big words where simpler ones will do can lead people to think you’re overcompensating. The research found that, in written work, language that makes it more difficult for the reader to understand the text lowers their opinion of the writer. And that’s just one of the reasons why using big words doesn’t make you sound smart.
“Like”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Most of us don’t realize just how often we use this word in everyday language. While it may seem like no big deal, this small thing can, like, totally give the wrong impression to people. Using it to punctuate your speech can conjure up images of Cher Horowitz from Clueless. So, like, check yourself the next time you’re tempted to utter this extraneous word.
“Literally”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Do you pepper your sentences with the word “literally”? You’re not alone. This word is what’s known as an “intensifier,” which means that people use it to put more emphasis on what they are saying. For example, “I’m literally falling asleep” sounds stronger than “I’m falling asleep.” There’s just one problem. The word “literally” means that something is exact and true, so when you use it metaphorically you run the risk of sounding silly. Unless your eyes are shutting and you are literally falling asleep, don’t say you are. (Because if you really are falling asleep, you wouldn’t be talking or standing or sitting.)
“Actually”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Similarly to “literally,” many people use “actually” to put emphasis on their words. People use it when they’re telling a story or exaggerating a situation: “It was actually the funniest thing that has ever happened.” The problem is, the word leads the listener to believe that what you’re saying is 100 percent true and not just hyperbole. If you use it every five minutes, you’re either going to lead people to believe that your life is the most exciting thing in the world or, more likely, that you exaggerate too much.
“Basically”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
If you’re already saying something in simple terms, you don’t need to clarify that it’s basic. Many of us are guilty of this one without realizing it. Saying “basically” at the start of every sentence shows that you are unsure of yourself. Worse still, it telescopes to the whole room that you’re nervous; intelligent people don’t need to use these crutches.
“It’s not rocket science”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
No one is saying that it is rocket science. Ever. (Well, maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson might.) People often use this particular line when describing something that’s very simple. The problem is that it’s become overused and can make the speaker sound unimaginative. In fact, this phrase is so hated, it made the list of “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English Language,” according to University of Oxford researchers, as published in Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare.
Don’t miss the 33 middle school vocab words adults still get wrong.
“I personally”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
The main problem with this opening? It’s completely unnecessary. When you’re speaking, it’s clear that what you’re saying is your personal viewpoint. There’s no need to highlight that fact. Simple.
“Absolutely”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
There are a couple of ways in which you can use the word “absolutely”—it can be both an affirmation and an intensifier. So, when someone asks you a question, you could simply reply, “Absolutely.” On the other hand, you could use it to emphasize your point: “I am absolutely exhausted today!”
While it’s fine to use as an affirmation, you may want to think twice about using the word as an intensifier. Like “literally,” it can sound weak and unintelligent. Plus, it is another of the “Most Irritating Expressions in the English Language,” according to the University of Oxford. Check out these 10 phrases you never knew were trademarked.
“For all intensive purposes”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
If you’ve been using this phrase since before you can remember, the chances are you haven’t a clue what it means. Many common English mistakes come from us listening and repeating what we think we hear, and “all intensive purposes” is not the correct phrase. What you mean to say here is “for all intents and purposes,” as in “for all our needs.”
“Shouldn’t of”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Somewhere along the line, people misheard the phrase “shouldn’t have” and started using “shouldn’t of” instead. It conveys a lack of understanding of the English language that really irks some listeners.
“Could care less”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Most people use the phrase “could care less” to mean that they don’t care about something at all. However, the literal meaning here is that you have the capacity to care more—not that you don’t care.
The correct phrase is “couldn’t care less,” which makes far more sense. If you could not care any less about something, it has the literal meaning that you don’t care one iota.
Find out more about tricky English grammar rules.
“Those people”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
“This is almost always a signal that something biased is about to come,” says Suzanne Wertheim, PhD, CEO of Worthwhile Research & Consulting. Generalizing or making assumptions about people based on their ethnicity, the way they dress, or anything else, is naive and a sign that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
“Girls” instead of “women”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Do you refer to a group of women as “girls”? If so, you may want to change your ways. This mistake can make you sound old-fashioned or unintelligent, as it reveals your bias against a group of people. “There are all kinds of subtle nuances that make ‘girl’ not the equivalent to ‘guy,’” says Wertheim. “It’s a word that trivializes and demeans women, their adulthood, their agency, and their accomplishments.”
You’ll also want to avoid these 10 words that make you sound old.
“With all due respect”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
This phrase can be almost comical, as it’s often used in a disagreement when speakers want to signify that they have no respect for the person with whom they are speaking. When you use this line, you may think the phrase gives you permission to say whatever you want, but be aware that you’re likely not-so-subtly insulting the person you say it to.
Psst…You should also think twice before starting a sentence with these 10 words and phrases.
“Voilà”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
You may think that slipping foreign phrases into your everyday language makes you sound fancy and smart. You’re wrong: Not only does this sound pretentious but it also breaks one of literary great George Orwell’s fundamental language rules. “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent,” he wrote in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language.
“Actionable targets”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Business jargon is the devil. Many people make the mistake of using corporate phrases in natural conversation because they believe it sounds smart. The truth is that such phrases are off-putting, not to mention unclear out of context. While it may sound like a modern phrase, “actionable targets” was, well, an actionable target in Orwell’s essay. Keep it simple by saying “goals” and everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about.
Check out memorable last words from famous people.
“At this moment in time”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
More and more people have started using this phrase regularly, perhaps because they think it sounds brainier than saying “right now.” In reality, it just makes the sentence longer than it needs to be; there’s no need to specify that the time you’re speaking about is this exact moment. Check out these ways to improve your vocabulary in just one day.
“At the end of the day”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
When someone starts a sentence with this phrase, you can pretty much bank on them saying it many times during the course of a conversation. Not surprisingly it is also on the University of Oxford’s list of the “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions” list. Give it a rest.
“Position” instead of “job”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Using the word “position” in a job interview is appropriate; when you’re talking with your friends in a bar, there’s no need. “When people use these ‘fancier’ words, they can come across as pretentious,” says Wertheim. On the other hand, here are seven fancy words that make you sound smart.
“Me and my friend”Nicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Typically, the grammatically correct version is “‘my friend and I.” A quick way to check yourself regarding this rule is to think about what would happen if your friend was not there. Watch what happens when you take your pal out of the sentence: “Me went for a walk.” That doesn’t make sense. “My friend and I went for a walk,” becomes “I went for a walk.” It still sounds right. However, when an action is taken towards the subject in the sentence, “me and my friend” is correct. When you take your friend out of this sentence, “Grandma got ice cream for me and my friend” it still makes sense.
Brush up on more of the most commonly misused words.
Racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic languageNicole Fornabaio/rd.com, Shutterstock
Of course, it should go without saying that language that is offensive or derogatory to a particular sector of people will always make you sound stupid. So which phrases should you drop from your vocabulary? “Words that express bias and prejudice,” Wertheim says. “No need to list them here.”
All this said, it doesn’t hurt to improve your vocabulary—as long as you keep your speeches short and sweet.