by Sarah Warlick, writer and copy editor
The Grammar Geek never gets to enjoy a nice trip to the supermarket or a relaxing read of the online news. Sure, she goes the same places you do and loafs about every bit as much or more, but everywhere she looks there are grammatical atrocities that…bother her. It’s something like a tic or a princess-and-pea syndrome, in that these little things just tug and poke her to distraction.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/
In an effort to help others compose with more confidence and rid her mind of these concerns, let’s take up three somewhat obscure words that often trip up even the best of writers. These three words are highly prone to mistakes in usage, and there’s no shame in admitting you’ve been using them wrong. Still, if you are thoughtfully composing content to share with others, it’s nice to know the correct way to use:
Pore. This word has two meanings. The first is about small openings in physical matter like soil or living tissue like skin. The second, and the one that is often misspelled, is seen in the expression “pore over,” as in “She pored over the text late into the night, desperately hoping to absorb all of its magnificent detail.” Though it sounds like the verb one applies to the act of transferring liquid from a spouted container (“That wretched child has poured lemonade all over his sleeping brother just to convince him he wet the bed!”), it is spelled like the things we are told to minimize in our skin. Remember: the word with the ‘u’ is only used for liquid (which conveniently contains the same letter).
Utmost. This word communicates that something reaches the apex of its potential, the height of completion, the absolute most it can possibly be. “We like to treat all of our clients with the utmost respect and care.” It is not now, nor has it ever correctly been spelled “upmost.” “Upmost” is not a word. One can refer to the uppermost shelf or other things that are in the highest vertically measurable position, but when it comes to more abstract superlatives that imply the nth degree, the word you want is “utmost.”
Discrete. Or possibly discreet. But they are not the same thing. Confusing these two words is problematic. One refers to social virtues like keeping secrets and utilizing good judgment; the other is about distinct, measurable units such as numbers, objects or atoms. “Our firm is extremely discreet in the way we handle clients’ personal information.” As well it should be. Discrete data is the opposite of continuous data; it will appear only as one of a finite number of values. Numbers, islands and independently performing units of machinery are discrete. People are discrete only under the rare circumstance that we are referring to their individual bodies as not being part of a larger mass of humanity. Human behavior must be classified as discreet (or as is sadly more often the case, as indiscreet).
Bonus tip: Impactful is totally not a word. Please, please do not use it. One makes an impact. One braces for impact. One admires the impressive impact. One may not turn it into an adjective by itself. If you’re going to go around making stuff up, go ahead and say impactuous. At least it’s fun. I know you see it used everywhere, even by sources that should surely know better, but the fact remains that impactful is NOT a word. Not one of which the Grammar Geek approves, anyway.
That was easy, wasn’t it? I feel like I’ve done my job by contributing to the preservation of the language. And now you can use or virtuously avoid using these words with absolute confidence, knowing that you’re on the right side of grammatical law. I think we both deserve a discreet break to pore over our notes while we enjoy a glass of lemonade, anticipating our next meeting with the utmost enthusiasm.