Common bugbears of modern online writing

Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s endlessly entertaining and edifying Write it Right, I’ve collected a few errors (or so I see them) frequently found amid the flood of writing that makes its way online every day. They are not all incorrect per se, but as Bierce pointed out, over and above being merely correct, writing may also be unambiguous — and we should always strive to make it so.

This list is (and will forever remain) a work in progress.

ahold: ‘Get ahold of’ may roll off the tongue in person but this colloquialism has no real reason to exist in writing outside of dialogue.

disinterested: Used almost exclusively now to mean ‘uninterested’ in place of that perfectly good word. But disinterested refers to having no ‘interest’ in a financial or personal sense, as in a conflict of interest. One who is disinterested in (or more properly, from) something has nothing to gain or lose in connection with it, so their actions can be considered to have no ulterior motive. Similarly one cannot ‘have a disinterest in’ something — say they have no interest, or a lack of interest.

begs the question: The battle by pedants (including myself in the past) to rescue this saying from corruption is long lost and was misguided to begin with, considering ‘beg the question’ is at best an ambiguously worded paraphrase of a logical fallacy seldom found in ordinary discourse. If something raises or prompts a question, or conversely if it moots or presupposes its answer, say that. Avoid the original construction entirely and avoid the possibility of confusion, derailment, and unwanted commentary.

comma pause: Commas are punctuation that formally divide a sentence, and should not be used in expository writing to dictate its pacing or emphasis. For instance: ‘The CEO said that, “We will look into it” ‘ or ‘She determined that moment, that she would look into it.’ If the effect is important the sentence can usually be rearranged to achieve it and remain grammar, but be wary of changing the meaning.

six-feet: Variations of this type of hyphenation abound: ‘the screen is eight-inches wide,’ ‘she was five-feet, seven-inches tall,’ ‘it was four-and-a-half hours.’ When dimensions are being enumerated, no hyphen is necessary. It is when they act as a compound adjective that they must be united for clarity: ‘the board was two feet long’ vs ‘a two-foot-long board.’

add on, add in, continue on, etc.: The verb alone is usually sufficient. Incidentally, as hyphenated nouns (add-ons), these sound commercial.

in between: As above, the ‘in’ may be omitted with advantage.

in order to: ‘In order’ is superfluous in most cases and can be omitted. Variants of this may perform work under other circumstances, however, such as ‘as a means to.’

irregardless: No such word.

overexaggerate: There is no appropriate degree of exaggeration, so one cannot ‘over’-exaggerate. Possibly created by cross-pollination with ‘overstatement.’

that said, all that said, with that said, etc.: Consider a segue without an ill-defined ‘that.’

CEO’s, OKR’s: No need to add an apostrophe when pluralizing an acronym, it is both incorrect and ambiguous with the possessive. Pluralizing individual letters (rolling your r’s) uses an apostrophe so the single-letter word and its pluralizing s can be parsed correctly.

resolution and fidelity: Resolution refers to dimensions of pixels, fidelity the quality of a recording. A high-resolution video may have low fidelity for many reasons, though the reverse is not often the case. “High Definition” is commercially defined (1280×720 resolution) along with “Full HD” and other terms of art not worth listing here.

dystopian: Not everything scary and new is dystopian. The word signifies an inverted utopia, and is best used to indicate goods taken so far that they become evils.

set-up: Common in tech stories; A hyphen is almost never necessary. ‘Setup’ is fine to describe a process underway or the result of it (‘during setup’ or ‘this unwieldy setup’). When you set up a machine, it’s two words, set up, because the order is variable (e.g. ‘set the machine up’). The only usage where hyphenation might be preferred is ‘So this whole thing was a set-up?’

everyday/every day: ‘Every day’ means daily, while ‘everyday’ is an adjective meaning commonplace or frequently used.

in/with regards to: Using the plural implies a greeting (‘send my regards’) rather than pertinence; Substituting ‘regarding’ for the whole phrase usually solves it.

moon: A bit of an affectation, but the Earth’s moon has a name, and per NASA that name is officially, if confusingly, the Moon, with a capital M. Other moons, like Enceladus and Phobos, use a lowercase m, as do references to the Moon in its general sense as a moon.

at the end of the day, when all is said and done: Concluding paragraphs are rarely improved by this kind of preamble, which when spoken usually signifies that the speaker is trying to think of what to say next.

layoffs: Layoffs are something done by company or its leadership to its employees, not something encountered in the wild and endured, like bad weather. The latter treatment is a PR tactic to deflect responsibility: ‘Company A suffered layoffs.’ Workers suffered the layoffs — the company inflicted them.

nonplussed: It’s not clear why this is sometimes used to mean unbothered (perhaps a similarity with ‘unfussed’), but it means the opposite: puzzled or distracted.

bemused: Often used as a synonym for amused, bemused means bewildered. Keeping to a word’s primary and original meaning helps prevent bemusement on the part of the reader.

enormity: The word wanted is almost without exception ‘enormousness.’ Enormity has to do with being counter to the norm and implies great evil, not great size. Again, as the other word already exists and has no other meaning, there is no need to substitute this ambiguous and questionable one.

transpire: As Bierce pointed out a century ago, transpire means for something to breathe through or come to light, not simply occur. It seems to be used exclusively to sound erudite, but misuse of such a word can have the opposite effect.

insecure: This is used frequently to mean “not secure” in the sense of lacking protection or safeguards. But it is ambiguous with the commonly used “insecurity” in the personal, psychological sense and more broadly with not being secured physically, as in bolted down. Like disinterested, it may be better to secure the existing meanings of this word, which blur uncomfortably rather than harmonically with the intended meaning, and find something better to suggest poor software engineering.

systemic/systematic: Frequently substituted for one another, the former means something related to or pervading a system; The latter means something accomplished using a system. A disease may be systemic, but a doctor diagnoses it systematically.

lusty/lustful: ‘Lusty’ means hearty or vivacious, ‘lustful’ means full of sexual desire. A sailor may be both simultaneously but that does not mean they are synonymous. Unfortunately, repeated misuse has resulted in each having its meaning listed among the other’s. This is hardly a ‘common’ mistake but the New Yorker used ‘lustiness’ instead of ‘lustfulness’ to describe rabbits and declined to correct it when I pointed that out — may their decision live forever here, in infamy.

anyways, forwards, towards: No need for an ‘s’ on the end of these.

timely: Implies particularly good or propitious timing, not simply simultaneity or contemporaneity.

without further ado: This is itself ado. Ado without it.