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8 Commonly Misunderstood Words

This story originally appeared on PR Daily

Recently, I received a letter from a new private school opening in my neighborhood. The letter asked parents to attend an open house session to learn more about the school.

It’s the kind of direct mail that we all receive, and the only reason I paid attention to it was because of an error in the salutation. It read, “Dear prospective parent/guardian.”


Prospective means “likely or expected to happen or likely to become or be.” I’m already a parent and have been for many years. And so were most of the people who received the letter, otherwise they would not have received it. To address us “prospective parents” is wrong. To address us as “prospective clients” or “parents of prospective students” would have been correct, but awkward. In this case “Dear parent” would have been the better choice.

Word choice can be tricky. The English language is full of words that don’t mean what people think they mean or words that have subtle shades of meaning. 

Here are a few examples.

1. Averse

Averse means opposed to or having a strong dislike of something. Example: "He was averse to the idea of using a new style guide."

Averse is often confused with adverse, which means unfavorable or harmful. Ex.: "Report any adverse effects to your physician."

2. Comprise

To comprise is to enclose or include. Comprise is used in the active voice; therefore, “comprised of” is not correct. Ex.: "The university comprises six colleges and nine divisions."

Comprise is often confused with compose, which means to make up or be a constituent of. Compose can be used in the passive voice. Ex.: "The company is composed of 14,000 employees."

3. Imply

Imply is often used incorrectly as a synonym for infer. To imply is to speak indirectly or suggest.Ex.: "You are implying that changing the style guide is our only alternative." 

To infer is to surmise or conclude. Ex.: "I infer from your statement that you agree with this solution."

4. Less

Less is often confused with fewer. Use less to refer to quantities that can’t be counted and fewer to refer to numbers. "There were less people in the office today" is incorrect, because people can be counted. "There were fewer people in the office today" is correct.

5. Poisonous

Poisonous — often confused with venomous — means a plant, animal, or substance capable of causing death or illness if one comes into contact with it. Venomous means capable of injecting venom.

A rattlesnake is not itself poisonous, because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous, but not venomous.

6. Precision

In science and medical writing, precision is how close a set of measured values are to each other.Precision is often confused with accuracy, which means how close a measured value is to the true value. 

Confused? As explained on, “If you are playing and you always hit the left goal post instead of scoring, then you are not accurate, but you are precise.”

7. Than

Than should not be confused with then. Than is a conjunction used to compare things. Ex.: "Editing is easier said than done."

Then has several meanings, but none of them are comparative. In general, then is used in relation to time and the order in which events occur. Ex.: "I would like to meet for drinks, then have dessert."

8. Verbiage

Verbiage is not a synonym for wording, content or language. It means an excess of words; wordiness or verbosity. Ex: "Most press release quotes are riddled with irrelevant verbiage."

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