“Smart” or “Dumb”? The Most Common Words Leaders Misuse Everyday


Tim O'Shea Exit Other Door

I came across this article this morning, titled “20 Misused Words That Make Smart People Look Dumb.”

First things first:

The irony of this article is the misuse of the word “dumb” in the title. The real definition of “dumb” is “silent” or “mute,” though it’s informally used in our society as a synonym for “stupid.”

Speaking of which, I’ll cover “irony” toward the end of this post.

It’s an educational article, nonetheless. It covers many words by which we often get confused. I found a few I got wrong myself.

We all make mistakes. But you can avoid the mistake of sounding like you don’t know what you’re talking about if you pay simple attention to how you use certain words.

I’ve seen well-educated, intelligent CEOs and executives make these wording mistakes when speaking to groups. If you want to come across as knowledgeable, especially if you are in a leadership position, here are key ones you want to avoid.


“Ultimate” or “Penultimate”?

Watch out for this one. These two are easy to confuse.

  • “Ultimate” means final. Also used to describe something which is perfect or ideal.
  • “Penultimate” means next-to-last, or second-to-last.

“Penultimate” also gets confused for “preeminent,” which also means the best, or most distinguished.

I once saw a CEO say, “Our goal is to be the penultimate leader in customer resolution response time.” He didn’t realize what he literally said was, “Our goal is to be next to last in customer resolution response time.”

Is that really the message you want to convey?

I didn’t correct him…after all, he was paying me to speak to his group. (Hey…money talks.)

But I’ll say it here. Watch your wording, folks. Use “ultimate,” “preeminent,” or even “prominent” when you want to convey being the best at something.


“Fewer” or “Less”?

I’ll admit it, this one tricked me too.

  • “Fewer” should be used when referring to specific numbers of items.
  • “Less” encompasses a larger, uncountable number or concept.

Example: “We have fewer desks than we have employees in our department,” versus “There is less space for employees in our department.”


“Affect” or “Effect?”

The simple rule of thumb on this one:

  • “Affect” is the verb.
  • “Effect” is the noun.

Use “affect” to convey an impact currently in action. Use “effect” to describe a result. Example: “The storm had an effect on our operations,” versus “The storm will affect our operations.”

Now, because of my training in organizational and applied behavioral modalities, I will note there is one exception: “affect” is a noun in the field of psychology, used to describe behavioral functionalities or emotional states.

But not many of us will be talking about “the affect display of our sales team,” so it’s safe to make the distinction here.


“Irony” or “Coincidence”?

This one is my Holy Grail pet peeve. Everyone gets these two mixed up.

Here is where most people get it wrong:

  • “Coincidence” is when two or more events happen simultaneously.
  • “Irony” is when two or more events happen in contrast.

A bit of an oversimplified explanation, I realize. But that’s how you tell the difference quickly.

Most people understand “coincidence.” But just as many confuse a coincidence with “irony” or “ironic,” which has an extra layer:

  • Irony is when a dichotomy occurs, resulting in an experience opposite what you expected. It can also reflect a humorous or amusing outcome of a situation.
  • Coincidence is just when something happens at the same time as something else.

Examples of a coincidence:

  • You run into a neighbor at the grocery store to whom you were just talking to at your front door an hour ago.
  • You think about a friend you haven’t talked to in years, and 5 minutes later they call you.
  • You want to look up a subject in a book and open it right up to that exact page.

Examples of irony:

  • You call in sick to work when you’re not really sick and just want the day off…then you go to the grocery store, and while there, you run into your boss, who also called in sick.
  • You are thinking about having better quality friendships in your life, then 5 minutes later you get a phone call from a police detective who has arrested one of your friends who stole your credit card.
  • You want to look up something in a book on how to stay organized but you can’t find the book because it’s buried under a pile of clutter.

In short, watch your words. One of the qualities of a good leader is understanding the meaning of simple, but commonly misused words. You can start by making sure you avoid these mistakes in usage. You will have fewer misunderstandings, you will have more of an effect, you will be the preeminent communicator in your field…and that will be no coincidence.