Sunday, September 30, 2012

catched/caught: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, September 30, 2012

The standard past tense form of “catch” in modern English is not “catched,” but “caught.”

Saturday, September 29, 2012

resister/resistor: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, September 29, 2012

A resistor is part of an electrical circuit; a person who resists something is a resister.

Friday, September 28, 2012

name, pronoun: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, September 28, 2012

name, pronoun
In old English ballads, it is common to follow the name of someone with a pronoun referring to the same person. For instance: “Sweet William, he died the morrow.” The extra syllable “he” helps fill out the rhythm of the line.

Though this pattern is rare in written prose it is fairly common in speech. If you say things like “Nancy, she writes for the local paper,” people are less likely to think your speech poetic than they are to think you’ve made a verbal stumble. Leave out the “she.”

The same pattern applies to common nouns followed by pronouns as in “the cops, they’ve set up a speed trap” (should be “the cops have set up a speed trap”).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

angel/angle: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, September 27, 2012.

People who want to write about winged beings from Heaven often miscall them “angles.” A triangle has three angles. The Heavenly Host is made of angels. Just remember the adjectival form: “angelic.” If you pronounce it aloud you’ll be reminded that the E comes before the L.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

bourgeois: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In the original French, a bourgeois was merely a free inhabitant of a bourg, or town. Through a natural evolution it became the label for members of the property-owning class, then of the middle class. As an adjective it is used with contempt by bohemians and Marxists to label conservatives whose views are not sufficiently revolutionary. The class made up of bourgeois (which is both the singular and the plural form) is the bourgeoisie. Shaky spellers are prone to leave out the E from the middle because “eoi” is not a natural combination in English; but these words have remarkably enough retained their French pronunciation: “boorzh-WAH” and “boorzh-WAH-zee.” The feminine form, bourgeoise, is rarely encountered in English.

Two recent blog posts by Paul Brians cite a couple of usage-related comic strips.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

evoke/invoke: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, September 25, 2012.

 “Evoke” and “invoke” are close together in meaning, and are often confused with each other.

The action of “invoking” is usually more direct and active. It originally involved calling upon or summoning up a god or spirit. An invocation calls upon whatever is invoked to do something or serve a function. “Invoke” now can also be used to mean “to appeal to, to cite”: “in his closing argument, the lawyer invoked the principle of self-defense.”

“Evoke” is usually less purposefully active, more indirect, often used to mean “suggest.” If you invoke the spirit of Picasso, you’re trying to summon his soul up from the grave; but if your paintings evoke the spirit of Picasso, it means their style reminds viewers of that artist’s work.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sunday, September 23, 2012

payed/paid: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, September 23, 2012.

If you paid attention in school, you know that the past tense of “pay” is “paid” except in the special sense that has to do with ropes: “He payed out the line to the smuggler in the rowboat.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

unchartered/uncharted: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, September 22, 2012.

“Unchartered” means “lacking a charter,” and is a word most people have little use for. “Uncharted” means “unmapped” or “unexplored,” so the expression meaning “to explore a new subject or area” is “enter uncharted territory.” Similarly, it’s uncharted regions, waters, and paths.

Friday, September 21, 2012

breeches: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, September 21, 2012

The most common pronunciation of this word referring to pants rhymes with “itches.” The more phonetic spelling “britches” is perfectly acceptable.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

sensual/sensuous: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, September 20, 2012.

“Sensual” usually relates to physical desires and experiences and often means “sexy.” But “sensuous” is more often used for aesthetic pleasures, like “sensuous music.” The two words do overlap a good deal. The leather seats in your new car may be sensuous; but if they turn you on, they might be sensual. “Sensual” often has a slightly racy or even judgmental tone lacking in “sensuous.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

flair/flare: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, September 19, 2012

“Flair” is conspicuous talent: “She has a flair for organization.” “Flare” is either a noun meaning flame or a verb meaning to blaze with light or to burst into anger.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

prepositions (wrong): Entry for Tuesday, September 18, 2012.

prepositions (wrong)
One of the clearest indications that a person reads little and doesn’t hear much formal English is a failure to use the right preposition in a common expression. You aren’t ignorant to a fact; you’re ignorant of it. Things don’t happen on accident, but by accident (though they do happen “on purpose”). There are no simple rules governing preposition usage; you just have to immerse yourself in good English in order to write it naturally.

Monday, September 17, 2012

breakup/break up: Entry for Monday, September 17, 2012.

breakup/break up
A breakup is what happens when two people break up. The one-word form is the result, whereas the two-word form is the action that leads to it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

firstable/first of all: Entry for Sunday, September 16, 2012.

firstable/first of all
The odd word “firstable” seems to be based on a mishearing of the expression “first of all.”

Saturday, September 15, 2012

gild/guild: Entry for Saturday, September 15, 2012.

You gild an object by covering it with gold; you can join an organization like the Theatre Guild.

Friday, September 14, 2012

religion believes/religion teaches: Entry for Friday, September 14, 2012.

religion believes/religion teaches
People often write things like “Buddhism believes” when they mean to say “Buddhism teaches” or “Buddhists believe.” Religions do not believe, they are the objects of belief.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

underestimated: Entry for Thursday, September 13, 2012.

Enthusiastic sportscasters often say of a surprisingly talented team that “they cannot be underestimated” when what they mean is “they should not be underestimated.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

therefor/therefore: Entry for Wednesday, September 12, 2012.

The form without a final E is an archaic bit of legal terminology meaning “for.” The word most people want is “therefore.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

mumble jumbo, mumbo jumble/mumbo jumbo, mumble jumble: Entry for Tuesday, September 11, 2012.

mumble jumbo, mumbo jumble/mumbo jumbo, mumble jumble 
The original and by far the most common form of this expression referring to superstitions or needlessly complex and obscure language is “mumbo jumbo.” “Mumble jumble” is far less common, but still accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary as a variant.

But the hybrid forms “mumble jumbo” and “mumbo jumble” are just mistakes.

Monday, September 10, 2012

moral/morale: Entry for Monday, September 10, 2012.

If you are trying to make people behave properly, you are policing their morals; if you are just trying to keep their spirits up, you are trying to maintain their morale. “Moral” is accented on the first syllable, “morale” on the second.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

some where/somewhere: Entry for Sunday, September 9, 2012.

some where/somewhere 
“Somewhere,” like “anywhere” and “nowhere,” is always one word.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

racism: Entry for Saturday, September 8, 2012.

 The C in “racism” and “racist” is pronounced as a simple S sound. Don’t confuse it with the “SH” sound in “racial.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

envelop/envelope: Entry for Friday, September 7, 2012.

To wrap something up in a covering is to envelop it (pronounced “en-VELL-up”). The specific wrapping you put around a letter is an envelope (pronounced variously, but with the accent on the first syllable).

Thursday, September 6, 2012

in store: Entry for Thursday, September 6, 2012.

in store
Some people say things like “he is in store for a surprise on his birthday” when they mean he is in line for a surprise. The metaphor is not based on the image of going shopping in a store but of encountering something which has been stored up for you, so the correct form would be “a surprise is in store for him on his birthday.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

kindergarden/kindergarten: Entry for Wednesday, September 5, 2012.

The original German spelling of the word “kindergarten” is also standard in English.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

organic: Entry for Tuesday, September 4, 2012.

The word “organic” is used in all sorts of contexts, often in a highly metaphorical manner; the subject here is its use in the phrase “organic foods” in claims of superior healthfulness. Various jurisdictions have various standards for “organic” food, but generally the label is applied to foods that have been grown without artificial chemicals or pesticides. Literally, of course, the term is a redundancy: all food is composed of organic chemicals (complex chemicals containing carbon). There is no such thing as an inorganic food (unless you count water and salt as foods). Natural fertilizers and pesticides may or may not be superior to artificial ones, but the proper distinction is not between organic and inorganic.

When it comes to nutrition, people tend to generalize rashly from a narrow scientific basis. After a few preservatives were revealed to have harmful effects in some consumers, many products were proudly labeled "No Preservatives!” I don’t want harmful preservatives in my food, but that label suggests to me a warning: “Deteriorates quickly! May contain mold and other kinds of rot!” Salt is a preservative.

Monday, September 3, 2012

ice tea/iced tea: Entry for Monday, September 3, 2012.

ice tea/iced tea
Iced tea is not literally made of ice, it simply is “iced”: has ice put in it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

hisself/himself: Entry for Sunday, September 2, 2012.

In some dialects people say “hisself” for “himself,” but this is nonstandard.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

prone/supine: Entry for Saturday, September 1, 2012.

“Prone” (face down) is often confused with “supine” (face up). “Prostrate” technically also means “face down,” but is often used to mean simply “devastated.”