Troublesome Terms

The following list of troublesome terms and clichés gives the preferred usage for words or phrases that  are frequently misused, overused, vague, trite, wordy, or awkward. Use the links below to jump to a section.

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Troublesome word or phrase followed by the preferred usage

a or an

Use a before consonant sounds. Use an before vowel sounds.

This sets a historical precedent.

She wore a UO sweatshirt.
but
That’s an unlikely possibility.

Phi Beta Kappa is an honor society.

The choice between using a or an before an acronym is determined by the way the acronym would be read aloud.

a NATO member
but
an NAACP convention


about

It is becoming common to use about when referring to various entities and the things they make manifest.

"We run a quality sports program and we’re all about building character in our student-athletes." This is imprecise. Avoid it. An acceptable alternate might be "We run a high-quality sports program; its main goal is to build character in our student-athletes."


additionally

Nonstandard. Use in addition or also.

In addition, you must take a placement examination.


affect or effect

Often misused or confused. Used as a verb, affect means "to influence or change."

The drug will affect his mood.

Instead, use a verb that describes the effect more precisely, such as heighten. Avoid using affect as a noun. Effect is usually a noun, meaning "result," "reaction," or "outcome."

The effect of the moonlight was intoxicating.

Avoid using effect formally as a verb, meaning "to cause, to bring about, to produce."

She will effect many changes in the curriculum.

Use the less formal achieve, accomplish, or cause.


among or between

In general, between refers to two items, among to three or more items. Between is correct, however, when expressing relationships of three or more items considered one pair at a time.

The shuttlecock fell between Isabella and me.

Choose courses from among the three groups: arts  and letters, social science, and science.

amount or number

Amount refers to volume or to a quantity you can’t count. Number refers to things you can count. See also number later in this section.

The speech caused a tremendous amount of controversy.
but
What’s the largest number of students we can expect?


at this point in time

Wordy. Omit or use now, currently, or at present.

Many students live off campus now.
UO enrollment currently stands at 20,000.


coed

Although obsolete as a reference to female students, coed is still commonly used as an adjective meaning "male and female."

Coed residence halls have floors reserved alternately for men and women.


competence or competency

Competence means "skill" or "ability." Competency generally refers to a specific skill in a specific area.

This test measures your degree of competence in Spanish.
but
The doctoral program is designed to achieve the competencies established by the American Psychological Association.


compose or comprise

Compose is not synonymous with comprise. Compose means "to create or produce."

Fifty states compose the Union or The Union is composed of 50 states.

Comprise means "contain, consist of, or embrace." The whole comprises the parts.

The Union comprises 50 states.

Don’t use comprised of. Use the simpler consists of or contains.


continual or continuous

Continual means "repeated steadily" or "over and over." Continuous means "uninterrupted," "steady," or "unbroken."

The Huskies are the Ducks’ continual rivals.
The students walking over the footbridge to Autzen Stadium formed a continuous stream.


couple

Nonstandard as an adjective. Don’t forget the of.

The deadline is just a couple of days away.
not
The deadline is just a couple days away.


deal with

Too vague. Use a more specific verb such as  cover, examine, include, or explore.

This course explores the history and development of freedom of speech.
not
This course deals with free speech.


effectively or in effect

Effectively is an adverb describing how the action of the verb takes place. It isn’t synonymous with the parenthetical phrase in effect.

The committee members worked together effectively.
By giving higher education $10 million more but asking the faculty to teach twice as many students, the legislature is, in effect (not effectively), cutting our budget.


employ

Reserve this verb for what employers do.

The university employs thousands of faculty and staff members.
but
He used (not employed) three equations to solve the problem.


facilitate

Overstated and formal. Use instead ease, make easier, help, guide, simplify, or promote.


the fact that

Wasted words. Omit them.


feel

Reserve this verb for sensory or emotional feelings; use think or believe elsewhere.

I feel queasy.
but
I think that ... or I believe that ...


first-come, first-served

This is the correct form of this cliché, but you’d often do better to rewrite the idea.


gender or sex

Not interchangeable. Use gender to refer to sexual identity, especially in relation to  society  or culture. Use sex to refer to biological categories. See also the usage note under gender in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Is your cat male or female?
One might identify with a gender that is different from his or her sex.


grow

Although most often used as an intransitive verb, the word grow is, in some instances, a transitive verb that describes something living things often do. Applying it to a business, an economy, a program, or any other nonliving thing is jargonistic. It smacks of the rhetoric of politicians and financiers, and is thoroughly discouraged.

The candidate pledged to increase economic growth.
not
The candidate pledged to grow the economy.


historic and historical

Any occurrence in the past is a historical event. Use historic for places, things, and events of great significance that stand out in history.


hopefully

An adverb that describes how the action of the verb takes place. It isn’t synonymous with I hope, we hope, or it is hoped.

He opened his grade report hopefully.
I hope (not Hopefully,) this will be published before school starts.


impact

Vague. Don’t use as a verb to mean "affect." Use affect or influence, or be more descriptive.

The tax cut will reduce (not impact) funding for the campus expansion.

As a verb, impact means "to force tightly together, pack or wedge, or to hit with force." Reserve impacted for wisdom teeth: impacted tooth.

As a noun, impact means "collision" or "the impression of one thing on another." Impactful is not a word. Replace that business jargon with an adjective like influential, powerful, effective, or memorable.


importantly

Nonstandard except as an adverb. Use what is more important.

The CEO strutted importantly.
but
What is more important (not More importantly), we need to have the money within the next two weeks.


in order to

Wordy. You can usually omit in order.

We laugh to (not in order to) keep from crying.


involve

Too vague. Use a more specific verb such as cover, include, or explore.

The course examines how employment legislation pertains to affirmative-action and equal-employment opportunity.
not
The course involves employment legislation and human resources policies.


irregardless

Nonstandard. Use regardless.

Regardless (not Irregardless) of the frigid temperature, the students wore shorts to play in the snow.


less or fewer

In general, less refers to a quantity you can’t count. Fewer refers to units you can count, but less can be used for degree, quantity, or extent when countable items aren’t being considered individually.

The campaign raised less than $500.

I have less money than you.
but
I have fewer dimes than you.


less than or under

If you mean a lesser quantity or amount, use less than. Use under to mean physically beneath. See also more than or over in this section.


like

Means "similar to." Use such as instead of like to introduce examples.

This question is like that one.
but
The interior uses brown tones such as (not like) beige, taupe, and rust.


meaningful

Vague and overused, as in meaningful discussion, meaningful dialogue, meaningful experience, and meaningful relationship. Use serious, useful, important, significant, or easy to understand instead, or describe what you mean by meaningful.


momentarily

Means "for the duration of a moment" or "briefly." When you mean "after a brief period of time has elapsed," use soon or in a few minutes or any time now.

Corey surfaced momentarily to take a breath.
but
The director will be able to see you soon.


more than or over

These two aren’t interchangeable. In general, over refers to spatial relationships. More than refers to a quantity or to units you can count, but over can be used for degree, quantity, or extent when countable items aren’t being considered individually.

The bear went over the mountain.

The telethon raised over half the campaign goal.
but
It will take more than nickels and dimes to reach our goal.

I have more than enough work to do.

In some cases of countable units, over may be less awkward.

He is over (instead of more than) 40.

In those cases, let your ear be your guide.


number

You can judge whether it requires a singular or plural verb by the article that precedes it. The number requires a singular verb; a number requires a plural verb.

The number of international students is growing.
but
A number of staff members are attending a retreat.


one-on-one

A nonsexist version of man-to-man, suitable for describing a type of sports-team defense. In other contexts it’s an impersonal cliché. Use more specific language.

Individual tutors train students in equipment use and safety.
not
The program offers one-on-one training.


per se

Overly formal. Use the less pretentious in itself, by itself, or of itself.


persons

Too often an awkward replacement for people.

Keep telling yourself as well as other people (not persons) that we have a problem we can solve together.


plus

Use only in adding units. Otherwise, use in addition, also, or and.

Earning 4 credits in biology plus 8 credits in physics fulfills the science requirement.
but
Transfer students may need to take an entrance examination and (not plus) additional course work.


presently

Means "soon." Use now, currently, or at present when you mean "at this time."

Many students live off campus now.
but
The dean will be with you presently.


prior or before

Prior is correct when used as an adjective meaning "earlier in time or place." Before is correct when used as a preposition.

Prior approval is required.
but
Take algebra before you take calculus.

Turn it in before noon.
Don’t put the cart before the horse.


reason why

Redundant. Use reason alone or omit entirely.

The reason (not reason why) you can’t register for this class is that it’s already full.
or
You can’t register for this class because it’s already full.


secondly or thirdly

Nonstandard, just as firstly or eleventhly would be. Use second or third.

First, be accurate. Second, be brief. Third, be prompt.


serve or service

Both words can be used as verbs, but serve applies better to people and service to machines.

We try to serve our clients promptly.
but
The technician will service the photocopier tomorrow.


since

Refers to intervening time and shouldn’t be used in place of because.

It’s been several years since I read Madame Bovary.
but
I don’t have the assignment because my roommate borrowed my computer.


’til or ’till

Nonstandard. Use until or to or till.

Wait until dark.
Associate Professor Steinmetz will conduct a seminar from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.
We brainstormed till dawn.


towards

British spelling. Use toward.


upcoming

Up- is unnecessary baggage. Use coming or another synonym.

Ask for a schedule of coming (not upcoming) events.


which or that

Although these two words are sometimes interchangeable, it’s best to reserve which for unrestricted or independent clauses (those preceded by a comma) and that for restricted or dependent clauses.

Complete regulations are included in the UO Class Schedule, which is offered online at the registrar’s website.
but
Remove only the apples that are bruised from the display.


while

Refers to simultaneous actions. It may be more precise to use although or but.

I’ll administer CPR while you dial 911.
but
I’ll administer CPR, although I’m a novice.

I was a late bloomer, but you’ve always been a leader.


who or whom

Often confused. Who does something, and whom has something done to it. Use whom when someone is the object of a verb or preposition.

The man to whom the car was rented did not fill the gas tank.
Whom do you wish to see?

A preposition (such as to, at, by, for, from, in, toward, upon, and with) often comes before whom. Who is the word in all other uses, especially when someone takes an action as the subject of a sentence, clause, or phrase.

The man who rented the car did not fill the gas tank.
Who is still here?

To test for correctness, who equals he, she, or they while whom equals him, her, or them. Replace who or whom in the sentence with one of those pronouns. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.


wish or desire

Often stilted when used as verbs. Use want or prefer for ordinary requests. Save wish for wishes (things that might not happen) and desire for desires (needs for emotional fulfillment).

If you want (not wish) to donate to the annual fund, please make out a check to the UO Foundation.
I prefer (not desire) to put my contribution on my American Express card.


Clichés and Jargon

The following list of words and phrases have, through overuse, become trite. Replace them with less exhausted alternatives.

bottom line

Rewrite and use result or outcome.

What result do you expect?
not
What’s the bottom line?


cutting edge

Be more specific.

The designer’s use of computer tools to develop her design puts her at the forefront of her field.
not
The designer is at the cutting edge of her field.


dialogue

Often misused as a verb, this noun refers to conversations between two or more parties. Avoid the cliché meaningful dialogue.

We need to discuss (not dialogue about) the new building plans.


diversity

Overworked. Think before you use it. If it’s an important part of your message, consider using alternatives such as variety, differences, or heterogeneity.

The variety and depth of our academic programs are unmatched in this state.


engage

The terms engage and engaging have been heavily overused (and often misused)—so much so that they have lost much of their potency. Already a vague word with too many options for meaning (one of which is fairly negative: “a hostile encounter, a battle”), engagement has reached the level of cliché, becoming practically meaningless on its slide into the arena of academic jargon.

What is worse is when its meaning has been confused by the writer, thus:

We will engage with theories of social structure and agency in order to engage with the interface between personal experience and political agency.

The intended meaning of engage in this case is lost. The closest meaning one might extract is “to engross” or “to draw into,” but the writer improperly uses the term with an abstract concept, something that cannot be so enticed, instead of a person or group.

Proper uses of engage may be found in The American Heritage Dictionary.


experiential

Jargon. Specify the type of experience.

These internships provide practical field experience.
not
These internships are experiential.


feedback

Jargon. Use response, results, evaluation, report, data, or opinion.

We value your opinions.
not
Your feedback is needed.


hands-on

Try practical, or draw a word picture that isn’t so hackneyed.

You’ll use a Macintosh computer to learn basic business skills.
not
You’ll receive hands-on instruction about business.


head up

Jargon. Use direct or lead or merely head.

Experienced river guides lead (not head up) the raft expeditions.


innovative

Is it really true of your program? If so, rewrite to illustrate how it is innovative.


input

Jargon except in reference to computers. Use information or opinion.

We value your opinions about this project.
not
Your input is needed.


interface

In the context of computers, this is fine. For people, use communicate or talk.

The committee members need to communicate (not interface) with each other.


leading edge

See cutting edge.


ongoing

Jargon. Use continuing or omit.

The institute supports new and continuing (not ongoing) research.


output

Jargon except in reference to computers. Use results elsewhere.

What results (not output) do you expect?


prioritize

Overused. Use order, set priorities, or rank.


quality

A meaningless cliché when used alone to modify a noun, as in quality education. The jargon term quality time rose to generic usage from the child-care field in reference to more deeply involved parenting, and it has become common to use the term quality as if the word in itself meant "good quality." It doesn’t. Quality doesn’t imply something positive; it needs a modifier to explain the kind of quality. Is it "top quality"? "low quality"? "mediocre quality"?

University of Oregon teams have won 12 National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in track and field and in cross-country.
not
The University of Oregon has quality track-and-field and cross-country teams.


state of the art

Like innovative, a cliché. Use modern, up-to-date, or newest instead, or—better—prove it by using an illustrative word picture.


synergy or synergistic

Appropriated from the scientific lexicon by the corporate world. In contexts outside of science, the term is jargon for "cooperation among groups, especially among the acquired subsidiaries or merged parts of a corporation, that creates an enhanced combined effect." Avoid.


unique

A cliché meaning "one of a kind." If what you are describing is truly unique, omit the cliché and illustrate specifically what makes it that way. Remember, too, that uniqueness isn’t necessarily good. If your program’s uniqueness is its strongest selling point, you need to show how it’s unique and convince the reader that this is a positive attribute.


utilize

Jargon. Use use.

Students use the latest microcomputer software. (not The latest in microcomputer software is utilized.


viable alternative

A wordy cliché. Use alternative alone.

Try to suggest some alternative solutions (not viable alternatives).