Me and You, Part Two

Dear Readers: A few essmonths ago I devoted this column to correcting some of the common mistakes people make when writing. The response was overwhelming. Of course, a few people thought the whole topic was idiotic (I’d worry if everyone agreed with me all the time) but the majority of emails were positive. And many of you sent in your own pet peeves. One question that came up several times was, “What does this have to do with parenting?” Fair enough. The answer is simple: Being able to communicate effectively is a very valuable skill—one I worry isn’t getting the attention it deserves in many classrooms (and homes).

At some point, our sons and daughters are going to find themselves needing to write something important—whether it’s a 4th grade book report, a high-school term paper, a college admissions essay, a job application, or a critical whitepaper for the CEO. And while I don’t believe that usage errors—even those that change a sentence’s meaning or render it completely meaningless—indicate a lack of intelligence, they don’t make the writer look particularly bright. And “not particularly bright” isn’t a trait that’s in high demand. Anywhere.

 

 

Here, then, are a few more common mistakes, many of which were suggested by our readers.

Then vs. than. “Bill has more hair on his chest then Bob,” or “The beautician waxed Bill than Bob.” Both are wrong. “Then” relates to time (eat your vegetables, then you get dessert), while “than” indicates a comparison (the United States is bigger than Cuba).

Their vs. there vs. they’re. “There” is a place (we’re having dinner over there); “their” is a possessive (did you steal their silverware?; while “they’re” is a contraction of “they” and “are” (they’re calling the police).

Few vs. less. These two mean essentially the same thing, but they’re used differently. The rule is that if you can reasonably count whatever it is that you’re talking about, use “few.” If you can’t, use “less.” For example, “eat fewer meat balls and less salt.”

Disinterested vs. uninterested. If you’re disinterested, you don’t have a bias or an interest in the outcome (judges should be disinterested). If you’re uninterested, you have no interest, you don’t care, or you’re just bored (judges should definitely not be uninterested).

Advise vs. advice. Advise is a verb—it’s what you’re doing when you offer suggestions. Advice is a noun, the actual pearls of wisdom you’re giving.

Accept vs. except. To accept is to receive—advice, perhaps, or a bribe. Except draws attention to something that’s not included. (You might think of the x as EXcluding). For example, “The auction accepts donations of everything except live animals.”

Assure vs. ensure vs. insure. To assure is an indication of confidence, a guarantee (I assure you that all this English usage stuff is important); To ensure is to make certain of (please ensure that you turn off the gas before you light any matches); and to insure is to purchase insurance.

Flesh out vs. flush out. Flesh out means adding detail to something (imagine flesh on bones); Flush out is to chase something (or someone or some animal) out of hiding (hunting dogs flush ducks out of the reeds).

Flout vs. flaunt. To flout is to deliberately disobey a law or rule (like smoking in an airplane restroom). To flaunt is to show off (Bob flaunted his newly shaved chest).

Literally. “The tension was so thick you could literally cut it with a knife.” No you couldn’t. Literally means that what you’re saying next is not an exaggeration

Me and You Are on the Same Page

Dear Mr. Dad: When I was in elementary school, there was a much greater emphasis on English grammar and usage. I remember diagramming sentences and memorizing spelling rules. Does anyone do that anymore? My third grader—who goes to a very expensive private school—comes home with notes from his teacher (or school newsletters) that frequently contain grammar and spelling mistakes. I’m worried that our kids are going to come out of school completely illiterate. Is there any hope?

A: Depends on what you mean by hope. The English language is a living, growing thing—just think of all the new words and ways of using them that have crept into our dictionaries over the past few years: Green and friend are now verbs (as in “greening your home” and “I’m going to friend you”). And five years ago, had you ever heard of webinar, ecotourism, emoticon, netbook, or notspot? We’re never going to be able to stop our language from evolving—and I think that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an attempt to at least use it properly. People (and by “people” I mean “plenty of native English speakers”) make dozens of usage errors. Some are kind of entertaining, but others can actually distort what’s being said. Here are a few of the ones that drive me batty.
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