Our Blog

Word Choice in Writing: 7 Mistakes That Scream “Amateur”

Photo of a bunch of Scrabble tiles in a big pile.
When it comes to word choice in writing, small mistakes can make a huge difference. (Photo: Sven Brandsma

Picture this: You’re reading an article, a blog post, or an advertisement, and so far, it seems like the company behind it knows what they’re talking about. The writing is professional, engaging, and informative.

Then, suddenly, you see it: They used the wrong your, their, or to, and now all their credibility is thrown into question.

How could a company possibly be professional and knowledgeable if they allowed such an obvious oversight?

As much as your word choice in writing may not seem like a big deal, small mistakes can make a huge difference in how your business’s credibility is perceived. And the more amateur the mistake, the worse it looks to potential customers.

To save you the headache, we’ve compiled a list of seven word choice mistakes that commonly trip up writers, along with suggestions for how to fix them.

In a rush? Get this article as a PDF guide so you won’t miss these tips!

1. Making Things Too Complicated

One of the most common writing mistakes is choosing a complex word or phrase when a simple one would do.

Although this is usually done to make your copy sound smart or authoritative, it often has the opposite effect. Sentences filled with big words can be difficult to follow—and can even come across as try-hard or pretentious.

Some examples of complicated words and their simple counterparts include:

  • commence vs. start
  • concur vs. agree
  • consolidate vs. combine
  • endeavor vs. try
  • facilitate vs. help
  • initialize vs. begin
  • terminate vs. end
  • utilize vs. use

To avoid making this mistake, read over your copy and note any words the average fifth grader would have trouble understanding. If a simpler word would suffice, opt for that. 

2. Making Things Too Simple

On the flip side, overusing words that are too simple can make your copy sound juvenile or uneducated. In some cases, this may even change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.

This is most important when it comes to instances where a simple, vague word is used when a more precise one is needed.

For example, don’t use the word “bad” when you really mean distasteful, impractical, incorrect, or inappropriate. Similarly, avoid using “good” when you really mean beneficial, favorable, or advantageous.

Other examples include:

  • Things
  • Stuff
  • Small
  • Big
  • A lot

To avoid making this word choice mistake, look closely at the word you’re about to use and ask yourself if there’s a more accurate way to describe what you mean. If there is, go with that word instead.

Doing this will not only make your copy sound more professional but also help you avoid any potential misunderstandings.

Photo of a person in a yellow rain jacket sitting at an overlook, back to camera, checking out a view of a long road in the shape of a curvy U.
Is your writing taking the long road? (Photo: Justin Luebke)

3. Taking the Long Road

Another word choice mistake that’s all too common is using a long phrase when a concise word or two would suffice.

Lengthy phrases can make your copy wordy and difficult to read. When your sentences meander, it’s easy for the reader to stop paying attention or lose track of what you’re saying. In some cases, lengthy phrases might even change the intended meaning.

Examples of lengthy phrases and their concise counterparts include:

  • At that point in time vs. then
  • In all cases vs. always
  • For the purpose of vs. for
  • With respect to vs. about or regarding
  • In light of the fact that vs. since or because
  • Prior to vs. before
  • Subsequent to vs. after
  • In the event that vs. if

Do you use any of the above phrases in your writing? If so, see if there’s a shorter, simpler way to say what you mean. In most cases, there is.

And if you need help finding opportunities to make your writing more concise, reach out to Super Copy Editors. Our team of editors will help you bring out the best in your writing so you can ensure success.

4. Correct Word, Wrong Context

Sometimes your word choice in writing is technically correct, but it doesn’t quite fit the context. This often happens with words that have more than one meaning or those with subtle connotations.

For example, “imply” and “infer” have similar meanings but different connotations.

Although the sentence “The bystander implied the husband murdered the wife” may technically be correct, it sounds a lot more scandalous and accusatory than the more factual “The bystander inferred that the husband murdered the wife.”

Similarly, “serious” and “grave” have similar meanings, but “the report had serious findings” and “the report had grave findings” have very different connotations.

And for an even subtler example, “cause” and “produce” have virtually identical definitions. But because “cause” is usually associated with negative events (“the car crash was caused by a drunk driver”) and “produce” is usually associated with positive events (“the company produced record profits”), they can impart different meanings to your text.

5. Unintentional Innuendos and Euphemisms

While euphemisms and innuendos are technically different from each other, when it comes to word choice errors, they can both be categorized as double meanings to innocent-sounding words and phrases.

While innuendos and euphemisms can help communicate humor or personality when used intentionally, they can be disastrous when used unintentionally.

For example, think about a sentence like “We observed the research participants in private.” Simply replacing “private” with “individually” drastically reduces the chance of a misunderstanding.

To avoid this mistake, look through your copy for anything that could be mistaken to refer to:

  • The body or bodily functions
  • Sex
  • Drugs
  • Crime

And when in doubt, check Urban Dictionary.

Gorgeous photo of sand dunes in a desert.
This is a desert—not to be confused with a dessert. Now, please pass the panna cotta. (Photo: jpeter2)

6. Similar Sound, Different Meaning

When it comes to word choice in writing, using words that are spelled similarly but have different meanings is just about the most common mistake out there.

Although they might sound the same when you say them out loud, using the wrong word in writing can make your sentence nonsensical.

Common examples of words with similar spellings or sounds but different meanings include:

  • Affect vs. effect
  • Advice vs. advise
  • Brake vs. break
  • Compliment vs. complement
  • Desert vs. dessert
  • Hear vs. here
  • I vs. eye
  • Right vs. write
  • Than vs. then
  • Their vs. there

Though most skilled writers and editors—and grammar correction software—can spot and fix these mistakes in written copy, errors like these are still frequently missed. This common issue is one of many reasons it’s so important to invest in an expert copy editor.

7. Wrong Prefix, Suffix, or Modifier

Another common word choice mistake is using the wrong prefix, suffix, or modifier. This often happens when words have irregular or unexpected modified forms, or when the meaning of the word changes based on its spelling.

For example, you may think that because “unstable” is a word, then “unstableness” is a valid modified form. But the correct word would actually be “instability”—even though “instable” isn’t correct.

Other examples of the incorrect vs. correct form of words include:

  • Unlegible vs. illegible
  • Unadvantage vs. disadvantage
  • Unloyal vs. disloyal
  • Nonattention vs. inattention
  • Awaked vs. awakened or awoke
  • Sitted vs. sat

To avoid making this rookie mistake, always check the dictionary for the correct spelling of the word you want to use, and make a note of any irregular forms.

Don’t forget! Download “Word Choice in Writing: 7 Mistakes That Scream ‘Amateur’” to keep it handy and take action on it. Click here to download it now.

Master Your Word Choice in Writing With Super Copy Editors

Despite your best efforts, your copy may have a few word choice errors hiding in plain sight—and that’s why copy editors exist. Copy editors are experts at word choice in writing and can help you find the perfect word or phrase for every situation.

Our team at Super Copy Editors is ready to help you make your copy strong, compelling, and optimized for success. Get your quote now.

Found this helpful? Please share:

Boost Your Workday With These Tips

Get 1 ridiculously powerful writing tip or productivity hack by email, 2x per week. Perfect for marketers, agencies, and education companies. It’s free. 💪

Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than 25 years of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes. At Super Copy Editors, we’re passionate about helping agencies, marketing teams, and education companies refine and polish their text to give them confidence and ensure success. Learn more here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

photo of a collection of style guides and books on advertising, marketing, and education