3 common linguistic terms that people often botch

Writers who commit the occasional verbal SNAFU are not unique in that regard. Here’s one author for whom the odd misstep and easy solutions are SOP.


Have you ever used a word incorrectly? It’s embarrassing.

Here are three terms people often misuse, along with tips on how to use them properly.

 [Adverb] + unique

At a family gathering, I told my uncle I was reading a book that was “very unique.” He informed me that my statement didn’t make sense, because the word “unique” means one of a kind. How can anything be “very one of a kind”? Thanks, Uncle Lou.

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Two terrific alternatives to unique are distinctive and unusual. They don’t have quite the same meaning, but they’re close. Plus, it’s acceptable to pair adverbs with them.

Acronyms versus initialisms

FBI is not an acronym, nor are CIA and NSA. Evidently, most U.S. government abbreviations are not acronyms; they’re initialisms.

Acronyms are pronounced as their own words, such as NASA or FEMA, whereas initialisms are abbreviations in which you pronounce every letter individually.

Therefore, since we say “F-B-I” with each of its individual letters, it’s actually an initialism, not an acronym. It would only be an acronym if we pronounced it as “fbye.” Fortunately, we don’t.

Some abbreviations defy this, however. The abbreviation for “standard operating procedure” is said “S-O-P,” not “sop.”

Who versus whom

Now we come to one of the nastiest pitfalls to make us feel silly, though the solution is fairly straightforward. One should use “who” in the subjective case and “whom” in the objective or dative case.

What does that mean in plain terms? It means that “who” refers to the person taking action. Use “whom” as the direct or indirect object of the verb, or as the object of a preposition.

Given that we’re talking about “who” so much, let’s use an example with my favorite band, The Who.

For [who/whom] did Pete Townshend write “Tommy”?

The preposition “for” needs an object, so “whom” is the proper choice.

Whom did Townshend cast as Tommy?

The subject of the verb “cast” is Townshend, the object of the verb is “whom”?  The answer is Roger Daltrey. Townshend cast him (the objective case pronoun) as Tommy.

A version of this post first appeared on the ProWritingAid blog.

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