Words People Always Use Incorrectly at Work

Very few things can ruin your reputation at work faster than poor business writing skills. A poorly worded email, memo or business document will stick with the writer a very long time. Luckily, your writing skills can be improved just by brushing up on vocabulary, grammar and spelling.

The following list of words are some that are misused often at work whether they use it incorrectly or mix it up with a different, but similar, word. Check to make sure you are using them correctly:


This one has become the butt of jokes on social media and is often the top choice on “pet peeve” lists because of its flagrant misuse. While 13-year olds are the main culprits, it sneaks into plenty of business emails. Just remember that the word “literally” means an actual fact and is NOT figurative.

Right: “I didn’t mean for you to literally drive down here from the downtown office on such short notice.”

Wrong: “The marketing department will literally riot if we don’t get the new file cabinets we’ve been asking about for three months!”


“Invariably” does not indicate that an action is frequent, it indicates that something happens every time, without fail. So don’t say, “Ben invariably comes into meetings late” unless he actually comes in late to every single meeting.



You should only call something “obsolete” if it is no longer made, used or needed. If something is still usable, but just on the decline, it’s “obsolescent.” For example, Windows 95 is obsolete, but Windows XP is obsolescent because there are still people using it, despite the fact that Microsoft stopped supporting it almost three years ago.


“Disinterested” means unbiased and does not mean a person has no interest in a topic.  In other words, don’t tell someone that they seemed pretty disinterested in the presentation this morning because they looked bored.

Example:“A disinterested judge will hear the arbitration case.” versus “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”



Some word wonks would call this a mish-mash of “regardless” and “irrespective,” but “irregardless” is basically a made-up word. You should never use it under any circumstances. Use “regardless” instead.


Hot Button
“Hot button” means an emotional and divisive controversy, but is often confused in business writing to mean a “hot topic.” Confusion comes when writers combine the two with “hot button topic” over subjects that are not divisive.

Example:“She tried to stay away from the hot button of Trump’s election.” versus “Drones are a hot topic in the tech world.”


A “unique” item is one of a kind. It cannot be more or less unique than something else. Don’t write that someone has a “unique perspective” on the new project or has a “unique personality” unless that person truly is the only one in the world who does. Use words like “rare,” “different” or even “exceptional” instead.


Most of the time in writing, you’ll use “affect” as a verb that has influenced something, and “effect” as a noun for what happened afterwards. One way of remembering are the “cause and effect” experiments you had to do in high school science.

Example: “The power outage affected our ability to complete the project this afternoon.” versus “The effect of the power outage was that we did not finish the project.” Or, “The CEO’s resignation affected us all, but the greatest effect was felt by our shareholders when our stock plummeted and they lost millions of dollars.”


Writers should use “fewer” to refer to actual numbers of things, and use “less” with regard to volumes and amounts.

Example: “There are fewer people at work today due to the ice storm.” versus “The ice storm contributed to less enthusiasm for our people to drive to work in such hazardous conditions.”


Homophones (words that sound alike) are the bane of business writing because you often think you are using the correct word when you are not. In your business memos, if you are telling the marketing department that the company should offer a “sneak peak” of a new product before launch, or that the idea Bob presented during the last meeting with accounting has “peeked your interest” then you are using these words wrong.  You can peek around the corner or climb to the peak of a mountain, but if your curiosity has been piqued, it has been aroused or excited.



“Enormity” pertains to a great, massive evil and is often confused with “enormousness,” which connotes size without the bad or morally wrong aspect. There is a trend to neutralize “enormity” these days, but many people won’t read it that way and you could cause confusion.

Example: “The enormity of 9/11 still affects many Americans even 15 years later.” versus “The enormousness of the move to the new office building is just hitting the office manager now.”


“Adverse” describes a negative or bad result, such as “Ralph had an adverse reaction to “Taco Tuesday” in the cafeteria, but the whole department suffered, if you know what I mean.”  On the other hand, “averse” means you dislike or avoid doing something, such as “Ralph has been averse to participating in Taco Tuesday since that incident last month, but none of us are complaining.”

Sometimes readers won’t catch these mistakes, but you should work on building your vocabulary correctly, whether or not you think others will notice. Misusing these words can lower a person’s opinion of you, but using them properly will improve your writing and impress the reader.

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