Interview Tips

4 Kinds of Words That Make You Sound Less Smart

Improve your professional vocab simply by banning these phrases from your interviews

One key to crafting a persuasive presentation is knowing the expectations of your audience. A job interview is no different. Your words matter.

Prospective employers are looking for candidates who communicate clearly, courteously and professionally. Aspects of our personal speaking style can be an asset or a drawback. 

Fortunately, becoming mindful of our verbal tics and iffy word choices can help us correct them and present ourselves in the most effective way possible.

1. Filler words: um, sort of, like, you know

No one is immune from using filler words, especially when we feel uncomfortable, unsure of ourselves or put on the spot. (Full disclosure: One of my filler phrases is “Right, right, right.”) Not only are we more likely to use filler words in nerve-racking moments, but we’re also less likely to notice ourselves doing it.

As a preemptive strategy, ask an honest (but gentle!) friend to point out the filler words you tend to use, and keep your ears open for them during your everyday conversations. By the time of your interview, you’ll be in a much better position to catch yourself before you say them, and you’ll end up sounding more polished and confident.

2. Profanity, “text speak” and slang

The last thing you want to do is offend a potential boss, so profanity is off-limits. Text speak and slang may sound too informal, and they can also alienate listeners who are not up on the latest lingo.

To bolster your chances of connecting with your interviewer, forgo them. Once you’re on the job, you’ll have a better sense if slang is accepted and in what contexts. Until then, it’s best to err on the side of formality.

3. Nonstandard words

A usage panel is a group of language experts that studies how words are used and decides which usages are standard (i.e., acceptable) and which are nonstandard (i.e., less acceptable).

In general, standard usage is preferred in formal or professional situations. Below are common usages that most panels would define as nonstandard, so nix them during your interview.

Irregardless. Although irregardless appears in the dictionary, the word is considered nonstandard. Regardless is the better choice.

Literally means “in actual fact,” but people frequently employ it to emphasize a point, regardless of whether the point is factual: “The weather during our corporate retreat was so bad, it was literally raining cats and dogs.” Unless golden retriever puppies and British shorthair kittens were falling from the sky (which, don’t get me wrong, would be the best day ever), the word literally should be dropped.

Could of/should of/would of. The correct forms are could have, should have and would have. (P.S. The contractions of these phrases—could’ve, should’ve, would’ve—are best left to informal conversations.)

4. Easily confused words

Even seasoned editors can mix up the words below (including me). But if your interviewer is a stickler for language, misuses will jump out.

Memorize the meanings, and practice using the words in conversation and in writing. Better yet, think of associations for each word that apply to you personally. The definitions will be more likely to stick in your mind.

adverse/averse. Adverse means “negative.” Averse means “having strong feelings against.” The job candidate was averse to providing a complete list of references, which had an adverse effect on her chances for getting the job.

i.e./e.g. The abbreviation i.e. means “that is”; e.g. means “for example.” The interviewers have narrowed down their search to the most qualified applicant—i.e., you. You’ll be delighted by the perks offered by the company, e.g., generous health benefits, four weeks’ vacation, and a membership to the fitness center.

disinterested/uninterested. Disinterested means “impartial.” Uninterested means “not interested.” The position requires someone who can remain disinterested, consider controversial issues from all angles and arrive at well-reasoned conclusions. If you are uninterested in the current opening, perhaps it’s best to wait for a position that excites you more.

fewer/less. Fewer is used with nouns you can count; less is used with nouns you can’t (and with adjectives and adverbs too). Fewer candidates than ever submit a printed resume through the mail. Although the candidate had less time to prepare than the other applicants, she still aced the interview.

imply/infer. Imply means to “suggest”; infer means to “reach a conclusion.” After the recruiter contacted your references, she implied that you were the top candidate for the position. You inferred from her comment that your previous bosses sang your praises.

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