You know what “OMG!” means, if you are communicating in the modern world. I use that abbreviation here to express the feeling I have toward the widespread misuse of our language’s words and phrases.
Of course, English—especially American English—is quite flexible and regularly shifts mistakes into the “proper use” column. It does take time for such migrations, however.
Below are some examples that still are unacceptable. And they drive some people (me) a bit crazy. You can improve your writing, your credibility and your level of success by heeding the advice and incorporating proper usage into your written materials. Speaking correctly never hurt, either. But we choose to address these issues one medium at a time.
Unique: (not to be confused with eunuch) It seems so many people think “unique” is synonymous with rare. Forget about it. It means “one of a kind.” Thus, a birth mark that looks like the president of Lithuania is not unique—even if there are only two others like it in the world. Get it?
All of a sudden: Take a moment to think about this one. Break it down. Look for a meaning. What that clump of words is trying to say is “suddenly.” We make that assumption based on the context in which we always find that phrase. Follow Thomas Jefferson’s advice and never use two words where one will do. Tight writing always will impress, even if the reader is unable to recognize why.
The fact of the matter is: This mess frequently makes its way into verbal dialogue. It gives the speaker an extra moment to construct the meat of the sentence. In writing, there is no excuse for saying, basically, “Here comes my sentence.” There is no appropriate abbreviation for this menace. Trim this fat. Jump into the facts without delay.
Comprised of: If you are unable to recognize this as a train wreck, do not feel too bad. You have lots of company. This probably is the most improperly used phrase of all time. Proper usage follows “the whole comprises the parts” construction. Here is an example. This sentence comprises five words. Another: Our country comprises 50 states. Improper use seems to be contortion of a sentence such as: “Our country is composed of 50 states,” which is correct. Swapping in “comprised” is a grammar crime.
Alright: There is no such word, all right. It is creeping quickly into dictionaries via usage notes and probably will be accepted some day. Not yet, however.
Data: This is the plural form of “datum.” You never see datum because “data” (the word) is misused in its place. As I’m sure you know, data are plentiful.
Numerous books address the variety of words improperly used in modern writing. I chose the above samples, however, based on my experience reading passages penned by educated people. Many well-read folks think these words are correct because the misuse is repeated so frequently.
As noted earlier, widespread mischief often evolves to acceptance in proper English dictionaries. This is one area, however, where we should let others lead the charge.