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Plain Words - the Documentation and Training People

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Training Bulletin Issue 68

My way or the right way

Mrs Malaprop is a comedic character in Richard Sheridan's 1775 play, The Rivals. She is famous for utterances such as 'the pineapple of politeness' where she meant to say 'the pinnacle of politeness' and 'as headstrong as an allegory' instead of 'as headstrong as an alligator'. This device, of confusing words, has been such a good way to get a laugh that it's been used by many writers, from Shakespeare and Dickens down to contemporary scriptwriters of modern movies and sitcoms.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of scope for being a latter-day Mrs Malaprop in real life. Here are a few recent examples:

'No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.' (A former Australian Prime Minister. What he meant was 'repository'.)

'An easy way to identify symptoms of a heart attack in women is by remembering the pneumonic, PULSE.' (A news article, which should have said 'mnemonic'.)

Are you completely certain you know the correct usages for each of these? Really certain?

Is this kind of thing really such a problem?

It's enough of a problem that a Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, has written a book called The Sense of Style, looking at, among other things, how English evolves and what makes some writers so much more readable than others. Along the way, he lists the 58 most commonly misused words and phrases. We've tried to cover below some of the ones more likely to come up in professional, rather than personal, usage.


MitigateTo reduce the severity of something negative, e.g. to mitigate risk in a business case
MilitateTo play a major part in preventing something from happening, usually followed by the word against, e.g. modern vaccination militates against recurrences of plague


EnervateTo tire out or weaken, e.g., the length of the meeting enervated everyone present
EnergiseTo invigorate or stimulate, e.g., the ideas discussed at the meeting energised everyone present


DepreciateTo decrease in value, e.g., the value of the equipment will depreciate by 25% in the first year
DeprecateTo disapprove of something, e.g., we deprecate her inappropriate attempts at humour


This is particularly tricky because each can be a verb (a doing word) or a noun (a thing or idea).

AffectAs a verb, affect means to have an influence on something or to bring about a change in something, e.g., this is going to affect our deadline.
It can also be used in the sense of imitating or pretending, e.g., he affected complete indifference
Affect as a noun is quite specialist and it means the way people show emotional states, e.g., in his recent dealings with Congress, Mark Zuckerberg showed limited affect.
EffectAs a verb, this means to cause something to happen, e.g., we need to effect changes required by the new legislation.
As a noun, it means a result or consequence, e.g., we are still finding out the effect of this decision.


UnexceptionalThis means ordinary, not unusual: Clark Kent looks like an unexceptional bloke.
UnexceptionableThis means something you would not take exception to or object to, with an implication of being nothing outstanding: she was an unexceptionable manager.


ProscribeMeans to forbid something, e.g., Sunday shopping was proscribed for a long time.
PrescribeAuthorise a treatment or medicine, can also mean to define a rule, e.g., the council prescribes set conditions under which a permit is issued.

If you aren't 100% sure of a meaning, check. It's bad enough getting strange looks from colleagues, but imagine if something like this ended up in a proposal, a paid report to a client or even a reply to a complaint. These days you're likely to end up all over Twitter or Facebook.

Even better, if a word is obscure enough to make you feel the need to check it, don't use it – find a simpler or more familiar way of saying the same thing. We offer suggestions on how to do this in our courses on:

Even if you feel you don't have time to attend a full course, you can pick up a lot of useful tips on how to write clearly and concisely in an hour with our on-line Eight Principles Self-Study Module.

Email if you'd like to know more.

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