3 Types of Usage Errors

By Mark Nichol

In each of the sentences below, a word has been misused or is ambiguous, affecting the clarity of the statement. Each example is followed by a discussion explaining the problem and a solution to it.

1. His follow-up comment only further inflamed their passions about his perceived sleight against the higher art.

The error in this sentence is homophonic; a word that sounds like but is spelled differently from another word (and, more significantly, has a different meaning) has been used in its place. Sleight is a noun meaning “craftiness” or “skill”; it stems from a Norse word meaning “sly,” seldom seen except in the phrase “sleight of hand,” which refers to deception or an act of deception, usually in the concept of a magic trick. However, the writer is referring to a discourtesy, so the word intended is slight, which derives from an Old English word meaning “smooth”: “His follow-up comment only further inflamed their passions about his perceived slight against the higher art.”

2. This assessment should hone in on how decisions are made, how people collaborate, and how work is conducted.

Here, the error is of substitution of a near-homophonic word. To hone is to sharpen or otherwise improve (as in developing a skill); to home in on is to focus on a target. The latter meaning is intended, so the latter word should be used: “This assessment should home in on how decisions are made, how people collaborate, and how work is conducted.”

3. This approach will help organizations gain operational efficiencies that lower costs and facilitate an increase in loan volume.

In this case, an ambiguous word is used at a key juncture—lower can serve as either an adjective or as a verb, and it might be misread as the former when it functions as the latter here. For greater clarity, replace it with an unambiguous synonym: “This approach will help organizations gain operational efficiencies that decrease costs and facilitate an increase in loan volume.”

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3 Responses to “3 Types of Usage Errors”

  • venqax

    @Birion: No! And there is no Illuminati. Not organizati or otherwisati. And don’t say the name too loudly.

  • Peter Buxton

    I recommend a course of HRT – Homophone Replacement Therapy.

  • Birion

    Are the organizati like the illuminati?

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