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Resume and Cover Letter Words That Can Trip You Up

English is a funny language. There are different words that mean the same thing, single words that have different meanings, and words that are prone to mispronunciation, such as "nook-you-ler" when it's really "nook-lee-er", and "Feb-you-erry" instead of "Feb-roo-erry."

WordsThen there are the homonyms — words that sound alike, are often (mistakenly) used interchangeably, but don't mean the same thing. And when you use the wrong one on your resume or cover letter, you look foolish. To really make things difficult, your spell-checker can't bail you out because it won't recognize the mistakes.

Here are five confusing word pairs, their meanings, and how to use them properly on your resume and cover letters:

Affect vs. Effect

Definitions: Affect is primarily a verb, meaning "to act on" or "to impress the mind and feelings." Effect, on the other hand, is usually a noun that refers to a state of being effective or operative.

Proper usage: "My actions affected department operations, leading to a 10% savings in the telecommunications budget."

"My actions had a positive effect on department operations, leading to a 10% savings in the telecommunications budget."

One notable exception: "Effect" can be used as a verb meaning "to bring about." For example: "My actions effected changes in departmental operations, leading to a 10% savings in the telecommunications budget."

Verses vs. Versus (Is there an echo in here?)

Definitions: Verses is the plural form of verse, which refers to part of a written poem or song; versus (abbreviated as vs. or v.) is a Latin term meaning against or as compared to.

Proper usage: "Increased record label revenue by composing extra verses for award-winning single hit by up-and-coming band."

"Led task force that weighed costs of traveling by air versus rail."

Discreet vs. Discrete

Definitions: They're both adjectives. Discreet means understated or confidential; discrete means individual, or detached from others.  For instance, a company in the discrete manufacturing industry produces goods that are counted individually or identified by serial numbers. The goods are counted as distinct units rather than by weight or volume, such as processed foods or motor oil.

Proper usage: "Thoroughly and discreetly investigated three sexual harassment complaints."

"Ten years of senior executive experience in discrete manufacturing industry."

Principle vs. Principal

Definitions: Principle is a noun referring to an accepted or professed rule or action (e.g., "sticking by your principles"). Principal can be an adjective or a noun, depending on how it's used. The adjective means first or highest in rank, while the noun refers to a head or leader (school principal), or the original sum of a loan.

Proper usage: "Developed set of ethical principles that all executives follow."

"As principal sales associate for the Northeast states, generated a 20% increase in sales in 2009."

"Ensured that mortgage applicants' principals and incomes fell within bank's lending standards."

Incite vs. Insight

Definitions: Incite is a verb that means to stir up or encourage, such as a riot. Insight is a noun that means a keen understanding, perception, or intuition.

Proper usage: "Incited and directed lively, company-wide discussions about potential new markets."

"My two years in Hong Kong helped me develop new insight into how the global economy operates."

One tip: If you're a very perceptive individual, you're insightful. If you're inciteful, hiring managers will want to stay away from you and your resume. ("Sure, I can be insightful! You shoulda seen the stuff I incited when I played hockey. I spent a lot of time in the penalty box.")

What word pairs do you get confused about? Tell us.

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