Why do people insist on using certain words incorrectly?

Alice Hollis

Alice Hollis Ltd. - More than words®

Anyone that knows me, even a tiny bit, knows my absolute pet hate is the word ‘utilise’. And here’s why.

It’s rarely used correctly. Typically, when I see people using the word ‘utilise’, what they really mean is ‘use’. Look at these two dictionary definitions:

Notice the difference? If you use something, you’d doing it for its intended purpose. If you utilise it, the object was destined for something else.

Let’s play spot the difference…

In picture 1, I am using this mug to hold my morning coffee:

But in picture 2, I am utilising this mug as a pen pot:

It’s a subtle but important difference, and that’s why I feel the rage every time I see ‘utilise’ inserted into copy.

But it’s not just utilise

Last month I was invited to take part in a client’s messaging workshop. Their business had grown rapidly over the last couple of years, and they needed to adapt to the changing market conditions. So they now wanted to take a step back and evaluate their current proposition, and whether their marketing messages were aligned.

Going back to basics seemed simple.

“We’re a marketing technology consultancy.”


“We can’t say that because that’s meaningless – everybody’s a consultant these days.”

‘Consultant’. Another term that’s used flippantly, but it has a very specific meaning:

The important word being expert.

So who, or what, makes you an expert?

My client had decades of combined experience, working for and with senior marketing professionals across SMEs and enterprises in numerous sectors. They have third-party recognition, countless industry awards and all their new business comes via word-of-mouth… in essence, an ‘expert’.

But once upon a time, I was labelled a ‘consultant’. A relatively fresh-faced graduate, I had a marketing degree under my belt and two years’ experience, but was I really a consultant?

Fast-forward over ten years, where I now have more qualifications, a great deal more experience and chosen to follow a specialist area and I feel I could try to justify the label. But back then I had nothing under my belt that would qualify me as an expert, and therefore a consultant.

The words that can’t be spoken

And then there are the words and phrases that have lost all meaning because they’re thrown around like confetti at a wedding – for example ‘trust’ and ‘partnership’.

These are words that can’t be stated as fact: “We’re a trusted partner.”

They have to be demonstrated…

Example 1:

“As a trusted partner, my clients know I’ll get the job done, no matter what.”

Example 2:

“When my son had chicken pox, I was on mummy duty all week, taking care of him. But my client had an important event coming up and needed to get the stand materials to the printer by the end of the week. To ensure they had enough time to perform a proper internal review process, I stayed up until 3am on Monday night so the copy would be waiting for them in the morning. I incorporated their feedback on Tuesday night, and we were ready to go to print first thing Wednesday.”

Which example do you think demonstrates trust and partnership?

Every word has meaning

Being a writer isn’t about using the most complicated words to show off the extent of your vocabulary. We’re not in secondary school where you’re trying to impress Ms Kiani with your use of ‘hurkle-durkling’* (something I can no longer do since having children).

Writing is about taking complex ideas and explaining them as simply and effectively as possible so your audience gets value.

I beg everyone reading this to give their content one last review before you finalise it and ask yourself: do you mean every word you’ve written?

* Big thanks go to Countdown’s Susie Dent for this.

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