Frequently Confused Words

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To my eyes, the words its and it’s cause the greatest confusion. I know I have written about this before, but in case you need a quick refresher, here goes:

Its is a possessive pronoun: The dog wagged its tail. The tail belongs to the dog. No possessive pronoun ever has an apostrophe: hers, his, our, theirs—see? No apostrophes. Its is a possessive pronoun; therefore, no apostrophe, ever.

It’s is a contraction. It means either it is or it has:

It’s expected to rain later today. (Substitute it is.)
It’s been a long time since Southern California had a good rain. (Substitute it has.)

When you are thinking about using it’s, the one with the apostrophe, see if you can substitute it is or it has. If you can’t, you want the possessive form, its.

Two other words that cause serious problems are who’s and whose. This distinction is just as easy:

Who’s is a contraction, meaning who is or who has:

Who’s going to run for committee treasurer? (Substitute who is.)
“Who’s been sleeping in my bed,” growled Daddy Bear. (He means who has.)

Whose is a pronoun showing ownership: Whose pen is this? If you can’t substitute who is or who has, you want the possessive form, whose.

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Do You Know These Words?

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These are male ecdysiasts.

I was moseying around the Internet this afternoon and came across lists of very unusual English words. Many I am familiar with, and I bet you are too: Klutz, hootenanny, malarkey, ornery, doozy, brouhaha, filibuster and skedaddle. But how about these?

Widdershins—counterclockwise
Troglodyte—someone who lives in a cave (implying cluelessness because so removed from the world)
Borborygm—the sound of your stomach gurgling
Gastromancy—telling fortunes from the rumbling of stomachs
Codswallop—nonsense
Formication—Wrong! It means the feeling that ants are crawling on you
Fard—Wrong again. It’s face paint or makeup
Furphy—a portable water container
Hemidemisemiquaver—in music, a 1/64 note
Bumbershoot—an umbrella
Oocephalus—an egghead, which is what you will be called if you use many of these words. But they are fun to know.

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Proofread Everything!

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Surely you know how I harangue you to proofread everything. Yes, everything. Are you thinking of getting a tattoo? Tattoos need to be proofread too, preferably before the needle hits your skin. Here are some epic fails I found on the Internet today:

Thenks mather for my life
to live doesn’t mean your alive
Nothing last’s forever
My mom is my angle
God Is A Awesome God
I Love Poo
Living Is The Stronges Drug
No Dream Is To Big
Megan [crossed out] Oops! I Meant “Hollie”
Regret Nohing
Never Don’t Give Up
Stay strong no matter wath happens

Then there is a list of female names, all crossed out: Anna, Rosalie, Jessica, Tina. After those is a new name, Laura. Good luck, Laura.

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Pronouns and Antecedents

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Fear not: an antecedent is nothing more than a word (or words) that come before a pronoun. The pronoun refers to that word, the antecedent.

You know what you mean, but your reader doesn’t. Problems arise when we use pronouns, but the antecedent either is unclear or missing. Here are some examples:

1. Robert smiled fondly at his brother and said he had saved his life. (Who saved whose life?)

2. Annie told Robin she was confused. (Who’s confused?)

3. Aaron is a good cook, which he practices daily. (What does he practice daily? The missing antecedent is “cooking.”)

4. Rosalie threw her iPhone on the tile floor and cracked it. (She cracked the tile or her phone?)

When you use a pronoun, picture drawing an arrow from that pronoun to the word it refers to. If your arrow goes nowhere, rewrite your sentence to clarify the antecedent.

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Was or Were?

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In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevya sings, “If I were a rich man….” Why “were” and not “was”? We use “were” when the situation is not true, is contrary to fact. Tevya is poor. He wishes he were a rich man, but he knows he isn’t.

You’ve heard the expression, “If I were king….” But you’re not king, so again you use what is known as the subjunctive voice, using “were” instead of “was”:

“If I were taller, I would date taller women.” (He’s short.)
“If it weren’t snowing, we could go to the movies this afternoon.” (Not another blizzard!)

However, sometimes you want to use “was” instead of “were”; this is when the situation is not untrue:

“If I was talking too loudly, I’m sorry.” (You were blasting us out of the room.)
“If Andrea was at the rehearsal, I must have missed her.” (She was there; you were busy.)

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Before You Forward an Email

images You know you get too many emails every day. Everyone you know gets too many emails. Here are five guidelines to help you be thoughtful and legal about forwarding emails:

1. Before you forward anything, be sure you have removed ALL email addresses of others, both in the address lines and ones that might be in the body of the document. The privacy of others is as important as your own.

2. Forward only the relevant parts of an email. Much of it may be unimportant to those you want to receive it. Don’t make your readers wade through irrelevant information to get to the core information.

3. Take the time to write a personal comment at the beginning of the email. It can be very brief, as in, “I thought you’d want to see this,” but it’s important. Put yourself into the email and not come across just as a forwarding machine.

4. If you suspect the contents might contain a hoax, always check with snopes.com before you forward. You will save yourself a lot of embarrassment. (It’s happened to all of us who were in too much of a hurry to take this one simple step.)

5. If forwarding a message requires sending it to more than one person, if you don’t use BCC: for each person’s address, you may be divulging private information to people they don’t know. If you choose not to use BCC: have no doubt that all who receive your forwarded message will be OK with having everyone else see their email address. Using BCC: also prevents recipients from clicking on Reply All and bothering strangers with unwanted emails.

One more point: if you want to forward an email that was sent to you privately, you must get the original sender’s permission to forward it, to post it on Facebook or on any other form of social media. Emails we write are our private copyrighted property and we must respect the proprietary rights of others.

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My Favorite Kind of Grammatical Mistake

How can you not love misplaced modifiers? Often, they are kneewhackingly funny. I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and came across this sentence last night:

[Don] Valentine arrived at the Jobses’ garage in a Mercedes wearing a blue suit, button-down shirt, and rep tie.”

I’ve never bought a Mercedes, so I’m not familiar with the options. Perhaps you can buy an entire outfit for your new car. A blue suit would look spiffy against a metallic gray Mercedes body. I’m left wondering what kind of shoes the car had on.

A modifier is nothing more than a word or a group of words that gives information about another part of the sentence. Here’s the rule with modifiers: Put it next to the word or word it’s giving information about. In this case, we intuitively know that Don Valentine was wearing the clothes described. All Isaacson needed to do was begin the sentence, “Don Valentine, wearing a blue suit, button-down shirt, and rep tie, arrived at the Jobses’ garage in a Mercedes.”

Steve Jobs is a fascinating description of an extremely complex person. All it would have taken to avoid this error was proofreading and careful editing. I often wonder if editors no longer exist at publishing houses.

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