40 Different Words and Phrases Not to Use

Lex education: Our third annual roster of assaults on the English language


  •  Icon, iconic. Is there anyone or anything left who isn’t an icon these days? If everyone is an icon, then no one is.
  •  Back story. What’s wrong with background?
  •  Epiphany. Used way too much and too loosely. A simple discovery is often called “an epiphany.”
  •  Male nurse. Why the need for a modifier?
  •  No worries. This is a British affectation, replacing “no problem.”
  •  All’s, as in “All’s I know is …” This substandard abomination sounds like something out of Green Acres. The word is “all.”
  •  “Great story.” Too many anchors congratulate one another on the air. Keep the accolades private — and professional.
  •  It’s time to stop identifying people in news reports by their marital or reproductive status. Examples: Mother of three, stay-at-home mom, single mother, father of five. Would we ever say, “Married man without children”?
  •  Relevant. That horribly overused word from the 1960s is making a sorry comeback.
  •  Sunk as the past tense of sank. Example: “The boat sunk.” Yes, some dictionaries now allow it as an alternate, but their standards have sunk.
  •  Begs the question. It doesn’t mean to provoke a question, which is how most people misuse the phrase. It means to use circular reasoning.
  •  Pronunciation problem No. 1: Ex-specially. (Like the common expresso/espresso confusion, forget the x.)
  •  Political pundits: Please wean yourselves from saying “the perfect storm.”
  •  Hip types love to use the adjective über to mean ultra, best, tops, or ultimate. (Think “über chef.”) Referring to the German meaning of the word, let’s agree that über is over.
  •  Bust instead of burst. NBC’s Matt Lauer was a notable offender in talking about the “busted” BP oil well. Journalists should know better.
  •  Hot-water heater. It’s just water heater.
  •  Artful used as a synonym for artistic. Artful means cunning or crafty, as in the Dickens character The Artful Dodger.
  •  Trust me. We immediately mistrust anyone who says this.
  •  References in the media to a couple’s “adopted child.” He or she is their child.
  •  Sleep deprived, as in “I’m so sleep deprived.” What happened to “tired”?
  •  Incorrect usage of “me,” particularly among young people, many of whom, embarrassingly, are college students. “Me and my friend went to the movies Saturday.” Or “Me and my sister went shopping.” Would anyone say, “Me went shopping”?
  •  More importantly. The -ly is unnecessary. An adjective, not an adverb, is what’s needed.
  •  Skill set, as in “What is his skill set?” Just say skills.
  •  “Female terrorist.” References to gender are immaterial, especially since it’s not that uncommon for a woman to be a terrorist.
  •  “Middle-aged white people” as a pejorative. (Heard derisively on the radio recently: “Only middle-aged white people go to the symphony.” Even if that were true, so what?
  •  “Different,” as in “I talked to 10 different people,” or “She speaks four different languages.” That silly modifier is unnecessary.
  •  Gritty is used way too often to describe anything urban. The Sahara Desert is gritty.
  •  Pronunciation problem No. 2: Don’t offer
  • “my apologizes,” or you may be sorry. It’s
  • “my apologies.”
  •  Price point may be a retail-industry term. For ordinary shoppers, just “price” is fine.
  •  End result. Because there’s no beginning result, there’s no need to differentiate. The result automatically comes at the end.
  •  Ladies: Singsong conversation is for talking to kindergarteners, not for phone messages.
  •  Too many songs are being called an anthem. Let’s leave that to the “Star Spangled Banner.”
  •  She looks “ethnic.” Please. Everyone (including WASPs) has an ethnicity.
  •  “I wasn’t born yet” is no reason for not knowing your history.
  •  Lay is for placing. Lie is to recline. Lie down.
  •  Myself. It isn’t a substitute for I or me.
  •  Unnecessary use of the word had, as in, “I had told her,” when a simple “I told her” would suffice.
  •   “For Dummies” in book titles. Nothing like branding books for dumb clucks.
  •  Pronunciation problem No. 3: Unless you’re talking poetry, it’s not “verse,” it’s “versus.”
  •  “We live in an online world” is not an excuse for bad manners, poor spelling, or a lack of professionalism.
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