5 word misuse memes to watch for

  1. As such
  2. Within instead of in
  3. Fulsome
  4. Predominately instead of predominantly
  5. Reactionary instead of reactive
  6. About the Author

You’re editing a wide variety of content from different clients—web pages, reports, speeches—and one of the writers misuses a word or phrase. You fix it and move on. Then you see the same mistake by another writer, from a different organization, in a different document. You start keeping track, and you see the word misuse over and over again. What is going on?

What you have here is a language meme. Geneticist Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, noting that sometimes cultural items, such as fashion or songs, spread like wildfire through a culture. Today we call it “going viral.” This happens with word usage as well. People who do a lot of reading and writing, especially in their job, tend to emulate the writing of their colleagues and superiors. A new usage can move quickly from one writer to another.

But that’s a problem if the usage is wrong. Editors need to launch an all-out frontal assault to get such a viral misuse stopped. I should acknowledge, though, that sometimes the meaning of a word or term changes. Earlier in my career, I tried to argue with a writer who was using “timely” to mean “prompt” or “on time,” which was incorrect at the time but is now considered acceptable. The meaning of “timely” changed.

So I want to tell you about misuse memes that I’m seeing these days, with the proviso that these misuses may become a new use. If you’re a writer, try to avoid these misuses; if you’re an editor, please fix them.

As such

Let’s talk about how to use “as such” properly. To quote the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, “You use such to refer back to the thing or person like the one that you have just mentioned.” 

The dictionary’s example of “as such” is, “There should be a law ensuring products tested on animals have to be labelled as such [products tested on animals].”

Here’s an example I use: “She is an epidemiologist. As such [an epidemiologist], she understands how diseases spread.”

“As such” should be used to avoid repeating something such as a person’s role. 

But this is how I am seeing it used: “Existing Product Listing Agreements are not reflected in the table and, as such, the table may not represent the actual costs to public drug plans.” What the writer means is not “as such” but “as a result.” I’m regularly changing misuses of “as such” to “as a result” or “consequently.”

We should all ensure that word misuse is recognized as such and corrected.

Within instead of in

“Within” means something is inside, surrounded by, something else—“we loved the old cottage and the faded furniture within it.” You can also say that someone “operated within the rules.” Or that you were “within 10 metres of David Bowie.” Or that you plan to have your kitchen renovated “within five months.”

But “within” should not be used as a fancy way of saying “in.” I have no idea how this got started, but I’m seeing it everywhere. Why? What’s wrong with “in”? 

Here’s an example: “The Chair fills a gap within existing expertise at the institution or in Canada.” The term everyone knows is “fills a gap in.” Writing “within” when “in” does just fine comes across as pretentious.

This is how I decide: If I can substitute “in” for “within” and it is still clear or even clearer, it should be “in.”

Fulsome

“Fulsome” means expressions of praise, apology or gratitude that are exaggerated and sound insincere. It is used almost exclusively in the phrase “fulsome praise.” For example, “She laid on fulsome praise with a trowel.”

But this is how it is currently showing up:

“The diversity of representation and rich experience of Expert Panel members brought broad perspectives and fulsome dialogue to the process of developing indicators for measuring adaptation and climate resilience in Canada.”

These writers are using “fulsome” to mean “full” or “comprehensive.” But that’s not what it means. 

This is one of those new uses that may signal a change in the meaning of the word. For the time being, though, I’m fighting the good fight—“fulsome” means only one thing and should not be used in any other sense.

Predominately instead of predominantly

As a verb, to “predominate” is to be the majority: “In this neighbourhood, well-paid professionals predominate.” As an adjective, the “predominant” thing is uppermost, most important or conspicuous: “The predominant issue during the pandemic is health care.” As an adverb, “predominantly” means most important or noticeable: “Elementary school teachers are still predominantly women.”

But I’m seeing writers use “predominately”—a word that doesn’t exist—to mean “predominantly.” I think this is just an error—the original writer who made this error was searching for the adverb, but grabbed the verb and added an -ly. It became a meme and is now everywhere.

So, just for the record, it’s “predominantly.” 

Reactionary instead of reactive

When I talked to a client about this one recently, she told me she was seeing it fairly often. But there’s no wiggle room on this one—it’s dead wrong.

The word “reactionary” means a “person or group [who] tries to prevent changes in the political or social system of their country.” It is used most often in discussing the Russian Revolution, in which those who opposed the Revolution were called “reactionaries.”

Here’s an instance from the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The tsar’s reactionary policies, including the occasional dissolution of the Duma, or Russian parliament, the chief fruit of the 1905 revolution, had spread dissatisfaction even to moderate elements of the nobility.”

But here’s how I saw it used recently: “There are significant challenges with meaningful public engagement in the adaptation process. For example, engagement opportunities may be reactionary and conducted only after a planning process has been initiated and/or after major decisions have already been made.”

The word that the writer wanted was “reactive,” the opposite of “pro-active.” Nothing to do with the Russian Revolution, you will note.

So, “reactive.” Unless you mean trying to reverse social and political change.


We’d love to hear other language memes that you’ve found while editing or writing, so let us know in the comments! Were they correct but a little odd, or misuse memes as outlined above? Do you see any patterns, such as the writers’ ages, target demographic, or industry?

About the Author

Carolyn Brown is a Certified Professional Editor and Editor in the Life Sciences. She has edited a wide variety of material for 40 years, specializing in scientific and medical publications for the past 30 years. She is the author of the chapter on citation in Editing Canadian English 2nd edition and a perennial seminar leader.

How to juggle non-editing roles as an editor

As a young editor in a small business, I take on a variety of tasks that certainly extend beyond editorial work. Designing, marketing, audio recording, editing an app… nothing is off-limits! At first, this was a challenge—and to be honest, there are still days where I wonder if I really know what I’m doing outside my field of expertise—but I’ve learned (more or less) how to juggle non-editing roles even as an editor.

Marketing and Social Media

For me, going from editing to creating was easy; I have always loved to write stories and poems, so adapting my skills to compose marketing materials was hardly a stretch. After all, the goal is pretty much the same: captivate the reader. It makes little difference whether that’s through a solid opening chapter, a clever slogan, or a hilarious tweet. Of course, there are some considerations in marketing that you don’t find in creative writing: word count limits; cost per click; buzzwords; discounts; engagement via replies, likes, follows… But being an editor generally means you know your way around words. With practice (and a heavy reliance on performance stats), you’ll likely find writing blurbs, ads, and social media posts to be right up your alley.

Design and Content Creation

The bigger challenge for me is learning design. There are college-level programs dedicated to this skill, but I have never attended so much as a single class (hence the difficulties). Before COVID-19 struck, I was beginning to use Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator to make posters and book layouts with the help of our ACTUAL QUALIFIED design guy. But then, pandemic! I work from home and have neither my guide nor those programs. Luckily, he found me a solution: Canva. This user-friendly design tool has templates, images, and features that allow almost anyone to create an aesthetically pleasing design, so long as they have a basic understanding of technology and colour. As a landscape painter and long-time greeting-card-sketcher, I have been able to fashion some pretty nice posters and social media posts. I’ll have to wait to get back to the office to keep learning the InDesign layouts, though.

Branching Out

My recommendation for an editor looking to expand their role is to use what you know. I draw a lot from my personal life, especially in the marketing area. A few examples:

  • Saw the movie Encanto on the weekend? Tweet about culture and diversity on the work Twitter.
  • Playing an app with in-game purchases of outfits for your avatar? Suggest that feature when your company is building a free reading app and wants to find a way to increase profits.
  • Celebrating Labour Day with a picnic? Snap a photo and post it on Instagram—yours and the work account. Followers love seeing more than just advertisements.
  • Local library having a writing contest? Host a similar contest at the publishing agency where you work. (Check out DC Canada’s One Story a Day Writing Contest for Canadian kids in grades 1 to 6. Submissions close March 31st at 12 p.m. EST!)

Again and again, I come across events, people, or ideas in my daily life that can be applied to the marketing field. It could be a meme, an ad, or a painting. It could be a quote or a you-might-like-this-Instagram-personality suggestion on my personal account. Regardless, we are exposed to marketing and design constantly, especially in the Internet age. And we are all consumers, so by adding your editing skills to your knowledge of what the public wants, you can take on more functions within your company.

Finding Balance

Finally, in terms of priorities, I try to work on a bit of everything each day. I usually start my morning by creating a quick social media design on Canva and posting it on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes Pinterest. Then I do some editing, write a blog post or newsletter, look over new submissions, and edit something else. Maybe I’ll work on a podcast episode or translate some books to French. Maybe I’ll spend an hour Googling childhood education centres and send them some emails about relevant products. This way, it’s easier to stay focused, especially when working from home for over two years—flipping back and forth between fields helps me hone my craft (writing, editing) while still engaging with the public (social media, emails) and learning something new every day (design, apps).

Many jobs within the publishing field require you to have a way with words and another skill—graphic design, marketing, sales, etc. Strictly speaking, as an editor taking on non-editing tasks, you’re already halfway there.

About the Author

Kara Cybanski is a PhD student in Spanish at the University of Ottawa and an editor/social media manager at DC Canada Education Publishing. She intends to become a professor of World Literatures and Cultures specializing in women’s/LGBTQ+ literature in Spain. Kara loves cats, hamburgers, diverse stories, and learning new languages, and hopes to be a celebrated author and professor someday.