24 Words (and Phrases) That Make You Sound Stupid
Big words, business jargon and hyperbole intended to pump up your language only have the opposite effect. Check yourself before using any of these.
There’s no such word as “irregardless.” The word you’re looking for is “regardless.”
Although “try and” may feel like a natural thing to say, “try to” is grammatically correct.
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Despite the fact that people have been using this word for around 250 years, it’s best reserved for times when you want “to catch attention and to gain emphasis,” according to Merriam Webster. “Although widely disapproved as nonstandard, and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t is flourishing in American English,” says the dictionary.
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Put away the thesaurus—using long, complicated words isn’t a good way to impress people. The aptly-named study “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” from Princeton University, concluded that using big words where simpler ones will do can lead people to think you’re overcompensating. The research found that, in written work, language that makes it more difficult for the reader to understand the text lowers their opinion of the writer.
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Most of us don’t realize just how often we use this word in everyday language. While it may seem like no big deal, this small thing can, like, totally give the wrong impression to people. Using it to punctuate your speech can conjure up images of Cher Horowitz from Clueless. So, like, check yourself the next time you’re tempted to utter this extraneous word.
Do you pepper your sentences with the word “literally”? You’re not alone. This word is what’s known as an “intensifier,” which means that people use it to put more emphasis on what they are saying. For example, “I’m literally falling asleep” sounds stronger than “I’m falling asleep.” There’s just one problem. The word “literally” means that something is exact and true, so when you use it metaphorically you run the risk of sounding silly. Unless your eyes are shutting and you are literally falling asleep, don’t say you are. (Because if you really are falling asleep, you wouldn’t be talking or standing or sitting.)
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Similarly to “literally,” many people use “actually” to put emphasis on their words. People use it when they’re telling a story or exaggerating a situation: “It was actually the funniest thing that has ever happened.” The problem is, the word leads the listener to believe that what you’re saying is 100 per cent true and not just hyperbole. If you use it every five minutes, you’re either going to lead people to believe that your life is the most exciting thing in the world or, more likely, that you exaggerate too much.
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If you’re already saying something in simple terms, you don’t need to clarify that it’s basic. Many of us are guilty of this one without realizing it. Saying “basically” at the start of every sentence shows that you are unsure of yourself. Worse still, it telescopes to the whole room that you’re nervous; intelligent people don’t need to use these crutches.
“It’s not rocket science”
No one is saying that it is rocket science. Ever. (Well, maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson might.) People often use this particular line when describing something that’s very simple. The problem is that it’s become overused and can make the speaker sound unimaginative. In fact, this phrase is so hated, it made the list of “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English Language,” according to University of Oxford researchers, as published in Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare.
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The main problem with this opening? It’s completely unnecessary. When you’re speaking, it’s clear that what you’re saying is your personal viewpoint. There’s no need to highlight that fact. Simple.
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There are a couple of ways in which you can use the word “absolutely”—it can be both an affirmation and an intensifier. So, when someone asks you a question, you could simply reply, “Absolutely.” On the other hand, you could use it to emphasize your point: “I am absolutely exhausted today!” While it’s fine to use as an affirmation, you may want to think twice about using the word as an intensifier. Like “literally,” it can sound weak and unintelligent. Plus, it is another of the “Most Irritating Expressions in the English Language,” according to the University of Oxford.
“For all intensive purposes”
If you’ve been using this phrase since before you can remember, the chances are you haven’t a clue what it means. Many common English mistakes come from us listening and repeating what we think we hear, and “all intensive purposes” is not the correct phrase. What you mean to say here is “for all intents and purposes,” as in “for all our needs.”
Somewhere along the line, people misheard the phrase “shouldn’t have” and started using “shouldn’t of” instead. It conveys a lack of understanding of the English language that really irks some listeners.
“Could care less”
Most people use the phrase “could care less” to mean that they don’t care about something at all. However, the literal meaning here is that you have the capacity to care more—not that you don’t care.The correct phrase is “couldn’t care less,” which makes far more sense. If you could not care any less about something, it has the literal meaning that you don’t care one iota.
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“This is almost always a signal that something biased is about to come,” says Suzanne Wertheim, PhD, CEO of Worthwhile Research & Consulting. Generalizing or making assumptions about people based on their ethnicity, the way they dress, or anything else, is naive and a sign that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
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“Girls” instead of “women”
Do you refer to a group of women as “girls”? If so, you may want to change your ways. This mistake can make you sound old-fashioned or unintelligent, as it reveals your bias against a group of people. “There are all kinds of subtle nuances that make ‘girl’ not the equivalent to ‘guy,’” says Wertheim. “It’s a word that trivializes and demeans women, their adulthood, their agency, and their accomplishments.”
“With all due respect”
This phrase can be almost comical, as it’s often used in a disagreement when speakers want to signify that they have no respect for the person with whom they are speaking. When you use this line, you may think the phrase gives you permission to say whatever you want, but be aware that you’re likely not-so-subtly insulting the person you say it to.
You may think that slipping foreign phrases into your everyday language makes you sound fancy and smart. You’re wrong: Not only does this sound pretentious but it also breaks one of literary great George Orwell’s fundamental language rules. “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent,” he wrote in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language.
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Business jargon is the devil. Many people make the mistake of using corporate phrases in natural conversation because they believe it sounds smart. The truth is that such phrases are off-putting, not to mention unclear out of context. While it may sound like a modern phrase, “actionable targets” was, well, an actionable target in Orwell’s essay. Keep it simple by saying “goals” and everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about.
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“At this moment in time”
More and more people have started using this phrase regularly, perhaps because they think it sounds brainier than saying “right now.” In reality, it just makes the sentence longer than it needs to be; there’s no need to specify that the time you’re speaking about is this exact moment.
“At the end of the day”
When someone starts a sentence with this phrase, you can pretty much bank on them saying it many times during the course of a conversation. Not surprisingly it is also on the University of Oxford’s list of the “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions” list. Give it a rest.
“Position” instead of “job”
Using the word “position” in a job interview is appropriate; when you’re talking with your friends in a bar, there’s no need. “When people use these ‘fancier’ words, they can come across as pretentious,” says Wertheim.
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“Me and my friend”
The grammatically correct version is “‘my friend and I.” A quick way to check yourself regarding this rule is to think about what would happen if your friend was not there. Watch what happens when you take your pal out of the sentence: “Me went for a walk.” However: “My friend and I went for a walk,” becomes “I went for a walk.” It still sounds right.
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Racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic language
Of course, it should go without saying that language that is offensive or derogatory to a particular sector of people will always make you sound stupid. So which phrases should you drop from your vocabulary? “Words that express bias and prejudice,” Wertheim says. “No need to list them here.”
All this said, it doesn’t hurt to improve your vocabulary!