Tips from Real Life 101

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Beware The “Illiteratives”, Part II: Which word is it anyway?

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Our first entry in this series, “Part I: Apostrophes and Pronouns”, was a huge hit garnering the most reads of any Real Life 101 post to date.  Thank you for reading and sharing our tips, and we will keep bringing you more pointers to help you avoid what I call the “Illiteratives”: usage and syntax mistakes which can make you appear uneducated to your reader.

This week’s installment illuminates some commonly confused or misused words in the English language.  Keep an eye out for these in your writing and speaking.

Sit/set – Only people and things capable of seating themselves may sit.  Everything else is set“I told Bob to set the casserole dish on the table and to sit anywhere he’d like.”

Figuratively/literally – Many people say literally when they mean figuratively.  This is odd because these words have opposite meaning. “He was literally as big as a house.”  I doubt it.  By definition, literally cannot be used with hyperbole in similes and metaphors.  You only want to use the word to indicate you are not exaggerating a situation: “We literally waited in line for three hours.”

Irregardless/alot – Neither of these are words.  You want regardless or a lot.  Many English teachers will have an issue with a lot as a poor descriptive word choice, and I would agree in most instances.  For example, “We sold a lot of products this year” doesn’t hold as much meaning as, “We achieved a 15% increase in sales across all product lines.”

Good/wellGood is an adjective, and well is an adverb.  As such, good is used to indicate the state of a noun, and well is used to indicate how an action was performed.  While both can be used to convey the same meaning, they are not interchangeable.  “Bob did a good job with the presentation” or “Bob did well with the presentation” are both acceptable.  “Bob did good with the presentation” is not good English, and “Bob did real good with the presentation” doesn’t help the situation; I can almost hear the banjos from Deliverance in that sentence.  To help keep them straight, think of ordering a steak.  A waiter asks you how you want it prepared, and you say, “well done” not “done good”.

Select/selectedSelect means elite while selected means chosen from a group.  “The restaurant features select vintages from selected wineries in California.”

Can/mayCan refers to capability while may asks for permission or refers to a likelihood of an event occurring.  These are not usually interchangeable.  “Can you reach that item on the top shelf?” or “May I ask a question?” are typical interrogative examples, but there are also shades of difference in the declarative as well.  Consider, “This car can achieve speeds in excess of 150 MPH.” versus “It may rain this afternoon.”  The first example expresses the capability of the vehicle, but it doesn’t speak to the likelihood of that event occurring.  The second example indicates a possible outcome; obviously, it can rain just about any day, but may expresses the possibility it might actually happen.

Me/I – These two cause a great deal of confusion which is compounded by the efforts of the music industry.  I’ve lost count of the number of songs I hear on the radio where the artist incorrectly (from a grammatical point of view) sings “you and I” instead of “you and me”.  There are two important things to remember:

 1)      I or me always comes last in the list.  It is never “me and Denise” or “I and John”.

2)      The easiest way to figure out which one is correct is to use the personal pronoun by itself in the sentence, and see if it still makes sense. “You and I should split the inheritance.  After all, Grandma left everything to you and me.”  By using rule #2, it’s easy to see it can’t be the other way: “Me should split the inheritance.  After all, Grandma left everything to I.”

Insure/ensure – No one buys “ensurance” for their car.  If you’re not writing about providing financial coverage, you want the other one.

Affect/effect – In almost all cases, affect is a verb and effect is a noun.  “The stock price was greatly affected by the CEO’s recent announcement.  Clearly, his message had a powerful effect.”

Compliment/complementCompliment refers to an expression of praise or courtesy while complement refers to something which completes or makes perfect.  “Judy complimented me on how well my shoes complemented my outfit.”  Helpful tip: see the word complete in complement.

I hope these tips help add to the clarity and coherence of your writing.  Stay tuned – there’s more to come!

Written by Real Life 101, Inc.

August 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm

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