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Mignon Fogarty


Grammar Tips: 7 Words You're Probably Misusing

Posted: 07/13/2012 8:43 am

Misused. Troublesome. Confusing. Downright difficult.

All of these words can be used to describe our mother tongue, English. We have synonyms; we have a vast collection of words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things; and we have gaping holes that need to be filled. ("Y'all," anyone?)

Grammar Girl's 101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time [St. Martin's Griffin, $5.99] hits the toughest words of all--the ones in flux, the ones that cause arguments in which the best outcome is that people "agree to disagree." English is always changing, and that always leaves us with troublesome words that are only sort of wrong. Some people insist the old ways to use words are the only correct ways, and other people use words in newer ways without even realizing they're controversial. If the Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, Garner's Modern American Usage, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage can't agree, how can the average writer avoid sounding stupid? In 101 Troublesome Words, I evaluate the different arguments for each "troublesome" usage and conclude with a practical "What Should You Do?" section.

The seven commonly misused words that follow are but a smattering of the ways English can go off the rails. Take note. Get them right and you'll keep sticklers from boarding the crazy train.

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  • Anniversary

    An anniversary is supposed to be something that happens once a year. The Latin root "annus" means "year," after all. Nevertheless, although the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't include any examples of "anniversary" being used to talk about anything other than annual events, anyone who's been around an American high school will certainly have heard kids talking about their monthly relationship milestones in terms of an "anniversary." It's common, but it's just not right. World English to the rescue! Filipino English speakers seem to have learned their Latin roots better than Americans because in the Philippines, "monthsary" is a common term for describing such monthly romantic landmarks.

  • Baited

    You wait with bated breath, not baited breath. Along with many other words, Shakespeare coined "bated" (or at least he was the first person to put the word on a piece of paper that survived to this day). "Bated" is a form of "abate," which means "to diminish, beat down, or reduce." So when you're waiting with bated breath, you're so eager, anxious, excited, or frightened that you're almost holding your breath. There's an odd logic to the "baited" misunderstanding--you bait a hook to catch a fish, and people eagerly waiting for something could be tempted to put out metaphorical bait. But why would it be their breath? It wouldn't. Nobody would rush toward fishy breath.

  • Begs the Question

    "Begs the question" comes from formal logic. When you beg the question, you make a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support. The premise can be independent from the conclusion or, in a simpler form, the premise can be just a circular restatement of the conclusion. Lane Green, writing for the Economist, expertly highlighted how opponents of gay marriage are using a classic begs-the-question argument when they say gay marriage can't be "real" marriage because the opponents only define marriage as between a man and a woman. In other words, they're saying, gay marriage is wrong because they define it as wrong. "Begs the question" does not mean "raises the question," even though that's the way you're more likely to see it used.

  • Just Deserts

    <a href="http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/2147551-the-la-times-is-getting-skewered-for-being-right" target="_hplink">A couple of stories</a> have surfaced recently about newspapers getting typo complaints when they publish stories that use the phrase "just deserts." It really, truly should be "deserts" and not "desserts" because <a href="http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/just-desert-or-just-dessert.aspx" target="_hplink">it has everything to do with the word "deserve"</a> and nothing to do with sugary treats. The flood of complaints is bad news for the "just deserts," though. It means the phrase is entering a phase Bryan Garner called "skunked," meaning you should probably avoid it because you'll get complaints both when you use it right and when you use it wrong.

  • Lose

    It's astonishing how many Internet commenters get this one wrong. Rise above the crowd. Try to get this one right. It's a low bar. "Lose" means to be defeated or to misplace something, and "loose" means "not tight." "Lose" is the older term: we get it from Old English. "Loose" didn't appear until Middle English. Here's a tip for getting it right. Most people know that "goose" is spelled with two o's because kids' books often have animals and because of Mother Goose. (I haven't seen "gose" for "goose," yet.) Remember that "loose" is spelled like "goose" by remembering that someone who's relaxed is "loose as a goose."

  • Literally

    Yes, dictionaries include <a href="http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/literally?s=t" target="_hplink">a definition of "literally"</a> that makes it seem fine to say, "Smoke literally came out his ears when I told him I was leaving," and linguists <a href="http://illinois.edu/blog/view/25/36843?count=1&ACTION=DIALOG" target="_hplink">point out that "literally" has been widely used in this way for at least 100 years</a>. But using "literally" that way still annoys a lot of people. If you want to avoid drawing ire the next time you're tempted to say or write something like, "His eyes literally popped out of his head," try a metaphor or simile instead: "His eyes looked ready to pop--like tiny water balloons."

  • Simplistic [from my book, not on the site]

    "Simplistic" means something is overly simplified or lacking something important. It has a negative connotation. Home decorating shows hosts should not describe a room they love as "simplistic." "Simple" can be good or bad. It means basic or easy. For example, you could compliment a room for having a simple, clean style or a gadget for being simple to use. [Bonus Tip: <a href="http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/compliment-versus-complement.aspx" target="_hplink">"Compliment" Versus "Complement."</a>] However, pretentious people can use "simple" as a put-down, and you can describe someone who is unintelligent or unsophisticated as simple. You can think of the "ic" on the end of "simplistic" as meaning "Ick, something is missing!"