I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.
• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.
• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.
Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.
But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural. Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:
• The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.
Will she be discreet?
These two words are pronounced identically and are commonly mistaken for each other.
DISCREET means circumspect, prudent, careful. If you are discreet, you will avoid gossiping or criticizing others. You try to avoid embarrassing others. Roger promised he would be discreet after his best friend told him he was thinking of divorcing his fourth wife.
DISCRETE means singular, unconnected, separate. Academy Awards are given in multiple discrete categories.
One of my favorite programs is “The Great British Baking Show.” In an early season, a show photographer caught this image of a squirrel on the grounds where the program is shot. (The contestants often use nuts in their recipes, and this photo does indicate a squirrel that is definitely well hung. But I digress.)
My husband and I hung some of my paintings today. Since everything I do makes me think of language, of course I thought of the difference between hanged and hung, two words that are frequently used interchangeably and incorrectly. I originally wrote this post over four years ago, without the squirrel, so I thought I’d do a rerun. Here’s the scoop:
HANGED is used for executions or suicide: “The criminal was hanged.” Sometimes you see “hanged to death” along with “strangled to death” and “starved to death.” Those are all redundancies. If you’re hanged, strangled or starved, you are dead.
HUNG is used for decor: “Angela hung the picture of the well hung model on her bedroom wall.”
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 .