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.