Whether you are writing an article for a magazine, an email, a blog, or a book, there is one essential tool you need—a good dictionary. Always have it at hand and use it often, whenever there is any doubt about a word or phrase. It can save you some serious embarrassment and preserve your credibility with your readers.
Don't rely on the accuracy of a word or phrase you've heard but never seen in print. I come across these misshaped constructions all the time; here are a few examples:
The wrong way: per say — That's how it sounds, all right, but it's not correct.
What it should be: per se — This expression is Latin and means by or in itself, intrinsically. For example, “I'm not opposed to capital punishment per se.”
The wrong way: wrecked/reeked havoc — The first verb makes no sense since it means to destroy the havoc, and the second one doesn't smell too good.
What it should be: wreak havoc - The verb means to vent or inflict, for example, “They wreaked havoc on the enemy.”
The wrong way: I nipped that problem in the butt! — That's quite colourful, but can we solve a problem that way?
What it should be: I nipped that problem in the bud! - That's the correct expression, of course. It refers to the practice of nipping a plant in the bud to prevent it from flowering. So the expression means to prevent a potential problem from becoming bigger.
The wrong way: a mute point — The adjective mute means unspoken or unable to speak.
What it should be: a moot point - The correct adjective in this phrase should be moot, which refers to something that is debatable or of no practical importance. For example, “That point may make for a good discussion, but it is moot.”
If we are in the business of using words, we need to be clear about what they mean, i.e., we need to use a dictionary. Writers often use words without a clear understanding of their meaning. Here is an example:
“I literally died of embarrassment.” A horrible way to go, I know, but can one really die of embarrassment? When you use the word literally, you are describing something exactly as it happened; you are being literal—using the strict meaning of the word.