Precision

While English can take a pounding and not break, you really should strive to use it in the best ways possible. Here are some of my favorite confused words and the easy ways to remember which is which and how to use them properly.

Of course, I’ve written before about how malleable the English language can be and still be understood. A famous example — possibly apocryphal — details Winston Churchill’s testy reply to an aide who criticized him for ending his sentences with prepositions. Churchill is reported to have replied, “That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put!”

The word order is completely wrong, but you still understood the intention, right?

Yes, English is malleable — a word which is derived from the Latin word for “hammer,” malleus. This is also where we get the word “mallet.” And what thing do you most think of as being malleable? Probably gold, the most malleable metal in the world which, in that sense, means the easiest to hammer because it’s one of the softest.

But I do digress…

While English is capable of handling a lot of mangling, it’s not something that a native speaker — or a proficient ESL speaker — should really be doing. It’s allowable more as a means of facilitating communication with a non-native speaker. For example, if a cab driver from Malaysia misuses parts of speech or words, I’m not going to stomp on his grammar if I understand what he means. He’s not required to speak at that level.

But… if a native speaker who is trying to communicate makes certain simple errors — especially if they claim to be a writer or journalist or teacher or other user of the language as a tool of the trade — then I am going to leap on that with both feet.

It isn’t that hard to learn certain things and keep them in your mind, or to look them up when in doubt. Not sure whether to use affect or effect? Look it up. Can’t remember whether it should be it’s or its, or who’s or whose? Ditto. And don’t rely on spellcheck. It won’t always tell you that you meant principle when you used principal if you spelled the word right.

There are some simple tricks and mnemonics to remember things, though, and here are some of my favorites — a few of which I came up with myself.

Who vs. whom

To be honest, you can pretty much stick with “who” in all cases in informal speech, but it can bite you hard if you misuse them in formal writing — especially if you use “whom” where you should use “who,” because that more than anything will show that you don’t know the difference and are just trying to be pretentious.

The difference, in technical terms, is that “who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun. Who does something. Whom has something done to them or given to them. But in order to remember most easily which is what, just remember “he” and “him.” This isn’t a sexist example, by the way — it’s just that since “whom” and “him” both end in M it’s easier to remember.

So… take question and make it a statement, replacing who or whom with the right pronoun — which should be easy — and you have your answer: “To who/whom does the invitation go?” “The invitation goes to him.” Therefore, it’s “whom.” “Who/whom is walking down the hall?” “He is walking down the hall.” Therefore, “Who is walking down the hall?”

Affect/Effect

Another tricky one that’s easier than you think, with one very specific exception that you’ll rarely run across unless you’re a mental health professional. One of these words is a verb and the other is a noun, and the key to knowing which is which is right in the words.

“Affect” is almost always a verb, meaning an action word — and it starts with A as well. So, if it’s an action, then it’s almost always “affect.” “She was very affected by the poem.” (“Whom did the poem affect?”)

“Effect” is almost always a noun, which is a concrete object or… an entity. There’s your E, for entity and effect. “The poem had an effect on her.” (“Whom did the poem have an effect on?”)

The “affect” as a noun exception refers to the way that someone presents their emotions through expressions and is most often heard in the phrase “flat affect,” meaning that they are showing no emotions through their affect, or appearance.

The “effect” as a verb exception occurs almost always and specifically in the phrase “effecting a change,” so it’s kind of easy to avoid if you’re not sure — although remember, a change is not a living thing, so it’s hard to really affect it.

Desert/Dessert

This one is really easy but, surprisingly, I didn’t know the difference until I was given a simple mnemonic by a TV producer I worked for, who told me (in her notes on a script, no less!) that the way to remember is that a “desert” is full of Sand, while a “dessert” is Something Sweet. Boom, done.

And, I suppose, by extension, you (verb) desert something by Shuffling away… Yeah, that one needs work.

Bonus round: noun/verb

I only just learned this one but… typically, in English, for words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, the emphasis is on the first syllable if it’s a noun, and the last if it’s a verb: Lost in the desert, noun; the soldier will desért his post, verb. Obvious exception — of course: he bought shoe polish and then decided to polish his shoes. Oops…

Comprise

This is one of those words that always gets used backwards, but if you want to appear really educated you’ll get it right. The way most people use it is backwards — “The chess set is comprised of many pieces,” and it’s a synonym for “made up of,” but that’s wrong.

In reality, it’s more direct but also more subtle: “comprise” applies to the thing doing the containing, not the things in it, and it doesn’t need the preposition “of.” So the correct use would be something like “The USA comprises fifty states and various territories.” (Not “The USA is comprised of…”)

E.G. vs. I.E.

Last example, but one that will set you apart, and you only need to remember four little words. “E.G.” is short for “exempli gratia,” and if that looks familiar it’s because in Spanish it would be “ejemplo gratis,” and you probably know the word “gratis” even if you only speak English because it means “free.”

So… e.g. means “free example,” and a free example can be one of many. “The zoo is full of many animals, e.g. lions.” This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have zebras or tigers or bears — oh my — just that you only listed one of them.

I.E. is more exclusive, because it comes from the Latin “id est,” meaning, “that is.” You only use I.E. when you are giving a unique or specific example. E.G. (see what I did there?) “He was only interested in getting his pilot on the Peacock Network, i.e. NBC.” There is only one Peacock Network, after all.

They were going to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, i.e. The White House.

There are a lot more examples I could give, and when I get to apostrophes and homonyms, hang on to your hats, but these should be enough for now. Enjoy — and share your favorite confused words and mnemonic helps in the comments below. Thanks!

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