We probably have all played the game of Telephone. Well, not all together, but each of us at one point or another.
The idea is simple: A message starts at one end of the chain, and it gets whispered—just once—to the next player. That player then whispers the message to the next player, and so on down the line.
By the time the message reaches the last player in the queue, it usually bears little resemblance to the initial utterance. The resulting garble can be hilarious, but it hardly makes for good communication.
Such is the nature of a living language. It drives us purists absolutely bonkers.
Frieda will use a word correctly; then Myron will use that word to mean sort of the same thing, which prompts Miriam to repeat it with yet another erroneous gradation, and…
With that in mind, here are some words that many people use frequently—and incorrectly:
“I’ll be with you momentarily.” Fiona might say this when trying to assure the waiting parties that she is just a jiffy away from joining them and bestowing upon them her undivided attention. Momentarily is the adverbial form of momentary, as in a momentary delay—a delay that will last but a moment, not begin in a moment.
It’s better to use presently, which means, yes, in a moment or two—though most people use it as a synonym for currently, which one rarely needs anyway, the present tense of verbs handling that quite nicely.
Let’s stay on time—on the topic of time, that is. During means “for the duration of,” so if someone says, “Leo spoke about his appendectomy during the meeting,” it suggests that it was one tedious meeting—and a gruesome one, at that. Try “…in the meeting” instead; it more effectively conveys that the gory details were just a memorable segment of the gathering and that other topics were discussed.
Constantly, continuously, continually
People constantly, er, continu—
Often, a person will use constantly or continuously, both of which connote something done incessantly, when he actually means continually, done in frequent and usually regular intervals. Bjorn wants to update his blog continually to keep it fresh. Doing so continuously or constantly would smack of obsession. Blogging’s great, Bjorn, but maybe take a break and play bocce or something.
Folks love to use exponentially to talk about the rapid growth or popularity of a given thing. It actually refers to numbers being squared or cubed or taken to the nth power. If one is going to use a mathematical term to describe such growth, exponentially is probably a tad hyperbolic. (Three geometry freaks just busted a gut over that one. The rest of you, please just keep reading.)
Dramatically or drastically will do nicely in its stead.
One person, try as he or she might, cannot put forth a concerted effort. When people work in concert—collaborating and cooperating—that is a concerted effort. It’s easy to remember by thinking of a music concert. (Yes, wise guy, even a solo performer needs help from the lighting people, the stagehands, the piano tuner, and so on. Though why a zither player would need a piano tuner is beyond me; it must be a union thing.)
There are plenty of better words to describe an individual’s striving for the greater good: Gerhardt’s fervent, arduous, painstaking, diligent, tireless, undaunted, herculean effort to count the jellybeans in the jar paid off when he took home the coveted set of crockery he won for the most accurate guess.
Readers, any others you’d like to offer?
This article ran on Ragan.com in April 2013.
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