As I’ve written many times before, all languages change over time because of common usage. I’m sure you often hear people use the word hysterical to refer to something funny. That is common usage and will, in time, become a standard definition. For now, though, hysterical refers to uncontrolled and extreme emotion. Picture an audience of teenage girls in the 1960s seeing the Beatles: they were hysterical with excitement.
Hilarious simply means something extremely funny: I find most Mel Brooks movies hilarious. However, I manage not to become hysterical.
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.
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 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 .
We’ve all wondered about the distinction. (What? You haven’t? Well, just in case….)
DIFFERENT FROM is used when comparing one thing to another: My favorite program is different from yours.
DIFFERENT THAN is used when what follows is a clause with a verb in it: My favorite program is different than what you thought it would be.
This is a repost from over two-and-a-half years ago—when we had a little rain in Southern California. We are now entering our sixth year of drought (but remember, climate change is, ahem, a hoax). A reader asked me to cover these two words, which I had done in February 2014. Don’t forget to use the search box on my blog to see if I’ve already written about the topic you’re wondering about.
Finally, finally, we have had measurable rain in Southern California. Until this storm began last night, we had just a little over an inch of rain this entire season, which began last July. Normal rainfall for this period is 11 inches. We who live here want and need more—a lot more. But do we want it to rain continuously or continually?
It’s easy to get these two words confused. CONTINUOUSLY means without interruption, whereas CONTINUALLY means continuing but sporadically, intermittently. The former would be a problem, as the hillsides are so dry that a deep soaking all at once would lead to the landslides you read about here. On-and-off rain, continual rain, would allow the water to sink in without causing erosion. A way to remember the difference between these two words might be to notice that CONTINUOUS has an S, and that, unfortunately, stands for slides. Think continual rain for us here in this parched land.
Yes, the climate is changing rapidly, a cause of concern for all.
Peaks in the Mist
© Judi Birnberg
These three words all sound alike but are often misused.
PEEK means to sneak a glance, usually furtively. Adam peeked in the attic where the Christmas presents were stored.
PEAK is the apex of something: the top of a mountain, a gable on a house, the points on egg whites when they are whipped hard.
PIQUE as a noun is a feeling of annoyance, especially if one’s pride or honor is insulted.
PIQUE as a verb means to stimulate interest: A review of Ian McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, piqued my interest in reading it. It is an achingly clever novel narrated by a full-term fetus (unnamed, but obviously a modern-day Hamlet, whose mother is Trudy, father is John, and doltish uncle and Trudy’s lover is Claude).