Grace's Mosaic Moments

Sunday, August 11, 2013

EDITING - Treacherous Words

In recent years some words have become so abused, their misuse threatens a change in the rules of grammar. Sorry, but I'm a strong advocate of keeping the beauty of the English language as it is. Yes, accept new words as they join the mainstream but don't forget the tried and true. I mean, would you really like to hear Tevye belting out: "If I was a rich man . . ."

The list of oft misused and confusing words goes on and on. I'm going to list a few of them below. Hopefully, writers will find the list helpful.

Most abused:  

1.  who & that. This one has gone totally out of control, sending me into clenched teeth mode in book after book. Or cringing while listening to the nightly news. (No, not all news anchors mess up, thank goodness.) It's really so incredibly simple -

Who is for people. That is for animals and places.

The girl who ran the marathon . . .  The man who was skinny dipping . . .

The dog that ate the cat . . .   She sat on a bench that was broken. 

Do you really want to be dehumanized into a "that"? Or do you and your characters want to be a hearty "who"? (As in Dr. Seuss's beloved Horton Hears a Who

2.  who & whom - in this case "who" is threatening to push "whom" out of general use. No matter how improper, the vernacular "Who're you talking to?" is replacing the classically correct "To whom are you speaking?" Nonetheless, unless you're writing dialogue for someone who would not speak grammatically - use who when it's the subject of the clause, whom when it's the object of a preposition. (to whom, by whom, for whom, from whom, etc.)

But—sigh—if you don't want your characters to sound like grammar nerds, you may have to waffle a bit between the "correct" and what people actually say.

3.  it's & its -  The difference is obvious, but for some reason many people just don't stop to think. Or they have some vague notion that putting in an apostrophe makes them sound more erudite.

"It's" is a contraction. Use it only when you mean, "It is."

It's a beautiful day today.

"Its" is a possessive.   

Referring to a book:  its contents

Referring to a salmon swimming upstream: In its long journey to return to its spawning grounds . . .

4.  imminent & eminent I heard a newscaster mangle this one only a month or so ago.

Imminent - something that is about to happen.

The bomb explosion is imminent.

Eminent - distinguished

As Professor Emeritus, he is the most eminent member of the Architecture Department.

5.  I can't hardly wait should be I can hardly wait.

6.  He/she could care less should be He/she couldn't care less

7.  alright & all right - Like "irregardless" alright does not exist except in error. Admittedly, it has existed in error so many times it's doing its best to push the correct version right off the page.  But, really, folks, the correct version is all right. Never, ever alright. [Please note correct use of it's & its.]
8.  Pronoun Mash-up - Subjects & Objects.

Jimmy and me went to the movies. You and Jimmy are going to the movies. Both of you are the subjects of the sentence. Therefore it should be: Jimmy and I went to the movies.

John bought tickets for him and I. Him and I are objects of the prepostion "for." (They are both passive - they didn't do anything). Therefore it should be: John bought tickets for him and me.  

Bob is older than me. The implication is: Bob is older than I am. Therefore, the correct phrase is:  Bob is older than I

Here's the one children love to use at the beginning of sentences, because they are the center of their world and must come first:  Me and Mary or Me and George. The correct, and less egotistical, version is:  Mary and I, George and I. Unless, of course, they are the Objects of the sentence (the ones the action was done to).  Veronica beat George and me at tennis.  (Note: well-mannered people put themselves last.)

9.  lay & lie - a lot of people are challenged by these two, primarily in their use as verbs not nouns.

lay & lie as verbs:
I lay the book on the table (present tense - I'm doing it right now.)
I laid the book on the table (past tense - I did it yesterday.)

But if a person is doing it to his/herself . . .

I lie down on the bed (present tense - I'm doing it now.)
Betty lay down on the bed (past tense - she did it last night.)

lay & lie as nouns:
The scout was sent out to get the lay of the land.
That man could really tell some tall lies.

10. may & might - Most books are written in past tense. While editing for Best Foot Forward, I've recently found authors dropping into the present tense when using "may." 

Wrong:  If the men saw her, they may think . . .

Right:    If the men saw her, they might think  . . .

11.  their, there & they're - these three trip us up all the time, but usually just because we aren't thinking.

their - possessive (like its): their books, their computer, their house

there - refers to a location. There they are! Down by the river. 
                                                          There were twenty people in the room.

they're - a contraction of they are & absolutely, positively not to substituted for either one of the above. Nor vice versa.

A toughie:

I would never have thought to list the two words below until they were the subject of a recent rather tart discussion on RWA's BeauMonde loop. (I suspect those shocked by people ignorant of the difference between these two words may have been Brits or nurses, where these words are evidently featured in the curriculum. Frankly, I don't recall ever having anyone point out this difference in my New England high school English classes or in my Ivy League college. So it's time we all learned . . .

Prone - lying down, face down

Supine - lying down, face up

Other troublesome words:

Note:  There are a surprising number of sound-alike words that pop up when we edit; usually, they're merely a case of our brains going one way, our fingers another. The following list of words, however, could use some reinforcement in our minds. They're so easy to miss, even while editing.

In alphabetical order: (with definitions deliberately aimed at casual)

affect & effect - the simplest way around these two: affect is a verb, effect is most commonly used as a noun

Affect (influence) - verb:
How is my going to Boston in June going to affect (influence) your vacation?
Effect (result) - noun:
The effect of the baby learning to swim is that I won't worry so much.

Effect (bring about) - verb:
The government says it's going to effect a change in the economy.

biannual - twice a year
biennial  - every two years 

The conference meets biennially in Orlando.

canon - This can be defined as a rule. As a musician I think of it as an ancient word for "round" (like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat")
cannon - This is the one you shoot. It's big, it booms loudly, the shot traveling long distances.

capital - The city that is the seat of government in a state or country
capitol - The building where the government meets 

chord - more than one note of music played at the same time - the sound can be harmonious or dissonant
cord - This is the one you use to tie up a package, or maybe the bad guy 

cite - If you quote a reference, you are citing it.
site - a certain place, location    John is at the building site today.
sight - As in "Oh, what a glorious sight!"
cue - If you can't remember your lines in a play, the prompter gives you a cue.
queue -  If you're standing in line for a bus, you're in a queue.

dam - a structure that blocks the flow of water in a river 
          Past tense: dammed
damn - a common expletive
          Past tense: damned   

emigrate - to leave the country of your birth & move to another
immigrate - to enter a new country

When my ancestors emigrated from Scotland, they became immigrants to the United States. 

farther -  a distance which can be measured in inches, feet, metres, etc.
further -  theoretical distances

 She moved farther way from me on the cold stone bench.
 The boss declared we would not discuss this matter any further. 
ingenious - An ingenious person is smart, clever, and inventive.
ingenuous - An ingenuous person is naive, trusting.

If a person is both ingenious and unscrupulous, he/she might take advantage of a person who is ingenuous.

peak - If you climb to the top of a mountain, you are at the peak.
peek - Peeping Tom is the name we call someone who likes to peek in windows.
pique - If you get mad at someone, you in a pique. If you like to ask questions, some say your curiosity has been piqued.

principal - the person who runs the local high school
principle - the rules we live by (or should!)

stationary - you can't move!
stationery - paper you write on (usually of a better-than-average quality)

who's - a contraction of who is and not to be confused with the possessive below.
whose - Whose candy spilled all over the floor?

your - possessive    Is that your computer?
you're - a contraction of you are. I need to know when you're going into town.

~ * ~
 Thanks for stopping by.


Next week: Photo essay - Cape Cod 2013

For Grace's books as Blair Bancroft, click here. 

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