I’ve had a book for eons, Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English (but were afraid to raise your hand), by Maxwell Nurnberg. Many of the exercises make you think. Look at these pairs of very similar sentences and answer the questions:
A. Which sounds more conspiratorial?
- We’d like to invite you to dessert with us tomorrow evening.
- We’d like to invite you to desert with us tomorrow evening.
B. Which draft board’s needs were the greatest?
- The medical board accepted men with perforated eardrums.
- The medical board excepted men with perforated eardrums.
C. Which question would an investigator ask about a specific group?
- Were there voices raised in protest?
- Were their voices raised in protest?
D. Which Joe is the eager beaver?
- Joe submitted to many orders.
- Joe submitted too many orders.
E. Which statement is concerned with ethical standards?
- The principles in the case are well known.
- The principals in the case are well known.
Remember, if you write an actual word, even if it’s wrong, your spellchecker won’t pick it up. Proofread meticulously.
Mark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.
Tweeting about the Chinese retrieval of an American drone, Donald Trump recently tweeted:
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”
Did you notice the typo? Trump said it was an “unpresidented” act. I don’t believe such a word exists, but obviously he has things presidential on his mind. I would tender the observation that many things he has done and said are unprecedented. I only wish there were a way to unpresident him. Just my opinion.
Here are two more frequently confused and misused words:
PRESCRIBE means to recommend: I hope my doctor will prescribe something to cure my bronchitis.
PROSCRIBE means to forbid: When you go to the rally, you will have to remain on the lawn and will not be able to enter the proscribed area in front of it.
You may be aware that a few nights ago Donald Trump and Mitt Romney dined together at Jean Georges, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Trump Tower in New York City. It could have been an awkward situation, since during the presidential campaign Romney called Trump a fraud and a liar, in addition to other damning epithets.
However, according to the New York Times, “Despite their rocky past, Trump and Romney didn’t show any animosity whatsoever between each other, as servers dressed in neckties and vests carried out their duties.”
I don’t know about you, but I cannot unsee those servers wearing only neckties and vests. Did Jean Georges allow his waiters to forgo pants? That sentence certainly implies the waiters’ outfits were on the scanty side. Imagine the conversation between a thrice-married womanizer and a long-married Mormon—if you can. I can’t.
You often hear and see these two words used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference in their meanings. It depends on whether you are leaving or arriving.
IMMIGRATE is the word to use when referring to people entering a new country: Canada has experienced great interest from people wanting to immigrate to that country from the United States.
EMIGRATE is used to refer to people leaving a country to take up residence elsewhere: Many people are considering emigrating from the United States to Canada .