Friday, October 14, 2011

Poor English

by Conroy

I was just reading an old essay from the late David Foster Wallace about tennis and Roger Federer (what else). In part of the essay he was recounting some commentary regarding racket technology and its affect on the modern game, which was written on plaques hung on the hallowed halls of Wimbledon's Millennium Building. There was one sentence in particular that drew his attention:
"Nowadays it is the powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin."
He goes on to masterfully analyze and correct the underlying premise, but what made me laugh was this footnote:
"(...assuming, that is, that the sign's 'with heavy topspin' is modifying 'dominate' rather than 'powerful hitters,' which actually it might or might not--British grammar is a bit dodgy.)
Wallace was an acclaimed novelist, critic, essayist, and expert grammarian (not to mention a tennis fan). I like his cheekiness to challenge "British" grammar, sure to rankle our cousins across the pond. Of course my smile was quickly tempered when I thought about what Foster's critical eye would have made of this blog, and my myriad grammatical errors, word missteps, and sometimes careless proofreading.

The truth is that writing is hard. I think I write alright, but English (American or British or any other variation) is so complex, with so many grammar rules -- many of them debated -- and so many words that it can be hard, and might be impossible, to write without mistakes. Consider a few of these challenges:

Writing the Right Word

The Man and I have both written about using the exact right word, the mot juste, to convey the meaning and context of a subject (see here and here). Well our language's seemingly endless vocabulary makes that both possible and daunting, but there is another challenge, more mundane and maybe more important. That's avoiding (accidentally) using the wrong word, a pitfall that even good writers can stumble over. English is full of homonyms and words with similar structures and related, but not synonymous, meanings. This can lead to trouble. A (very) small sampling:

[and I'm sure a close reading of this blog will reveal the occasional incorrect usage (hopefully just occasional) along these lines]

  • accept versus except - I'll gladly accept any explanation you offer, except those that are obvious lies.
  • accurate versus precise - It's accurate to write that Pi is about 3.14, but listing just two decimals isn't very precise.
  • affect versus effect - The extreme cold weather had affected the crops , the net effect was a shortage of grain.
  • alternately versus alternatively - Day alternates with night. I had many transportation alternatives when I was in new York.
  • altogether versus all together - Altogether, I'm glad the riot is over. The crowd was all together when things turned violent.

  • arrant versus errant - The arrant thief led the police on a wandering, errant manhunt.
  • assure versus ensure versus insure - I can assure you that my driving will ensure our early arrival. I have ample auto insurance in case we get into an accident.
  • complementary versus complimentary - Blue and yellow are complementary colors. His remarks about my final presentation were very complimentary.
  • discreet versus discrete - It's wise to be discreet about illicit actions. The city had numerous discrete neighborhoods.
  • disinterested versus uninterested - I wanted an unbiased, disinterested opinion, not an indifferent uninterested attitude.
  • emigrate versus immigrate - Most of my immigrant ancestors emigrated at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • eponymous - Weezer has three eponymous albums, but the albums are self-titled.
  • flesh-out versus flush-out - We needed to flesh-out the rudimentary report outline. The hunters flushed-out the game from the undergrowth.
  • flounder versus founder - He was so drunk he was floundering all over the street. The ship took on so much water that is foundered, sinking in deep water.
  • imply versus infer - His actions toward her implied a romantic interest. He didn't ask her out so she had to infer the depth of his interest.
  • inflammable versus flammable - Wood can be set on fire, it's both flammable and inflammable.
  • it's versus its - It's common for Conroy to erroneously use it's when expressing the possessive form of it. The correct form is of course its.
  • lay versus lie - Before I lie my head on the pillow I'm going to lay the book on the nightstand.
  • loathe versus loath - I really loathe selfishness. I would be loath to admit that his success bothered me.
  • madding versus maddening - The constant noise from the passing trucks was maddening. She responded poorly to his death, hers was a madding grief. Far from the maddening crowd? No, far from the madding crowd.
  • nauseated versus nauseous - I was nauseated from the bumpy car ride. It didn't help that the diesel fumes were nauseous
  • squash versus quash - I squashed the spider with my shoe. The army quashed the nascent rebellion.
  • than versus then - We agreed that since he had more money than me he would pay for dinner. Then we discussed were to eat.
  • venal versus venial - Politicians are often suspected of being venal. Dante didn't consider taking bribes to be a venial sin.
  • veracious versus voracious - He couldn't lie, he was the most veracious man I ever met. His small skinny frame belied his voracious appetite.
  • you're versus your - You're sure that we'll be able to stay with your sister?

How many of these words have you used wrongly? I'm sure you know the correct meaning of each word when you stop to think it through, though it's easy to use the wrong form of -their / there / they're- if you're not paying close attention to your writing. I love the variety of the English vocabulary, but you better be careful in the words you right...err...I mean write.

Which One Do I Use?
We know that there are ways to use certain words, or at least we think we do. But sometimes it can be downright confusing to apply even common articles, prefixes, pronouns, and prepositions. Four examples:

  • a or an - we know to use a before a consonant ("a car") and an before a vowel ("an airplane"). But we also need to use an before a vowel sound ("an hour ago"), and before a vowel sounding acronym (an NRA meeting). But how about before a consonant-sounding, vowel acronym? "A U.S. citizen," is certainly correct ("an U.S. citizen" must be wrong).
  • toward or towards - does someone walk toward you or towards you? Turns out they can do either, both are correct and interchangeable.
  • who or whom - when do we use who and when do we use whom? Simple answer, I never use whom. But the correct answer, use who when it is the subject of a sentence ("Who proofreads your writing?"), and whom when it is the object of the sentence ("I was so surprised at the number of errors in this blog post that I forgot for whom I was checking it."). But of course it's more complicated than that. One trick is to substitute he and him for the who/whom. If it makes sense to say "he," use who. If it makes sense to say "him," use whom. ("The Man writes better than him." / "The Man writes better than whom?"). If it's still confusing, just use who.
  • bi- or semi- - bi- is a prefix for every other while semi- is a prefix for twice. The bi-weekly meetings happen twice a month. The semi-annual audits occur in June and December. Congressional elections are biennial (every other year), while tennis tournaments feature the semi-finals, the two matches that determine the final pairing.
  • me versus myself versus I - There's plenty of rules with these three, but in general, use myself when emphasizing your role or referring to yourself again after using I. "I write by myself." Use I when the first person pronoun is the subject ("I wrote a new post."), and me when it is the object ("She read the mistakes to me."). Be wary of using myself instead of me.
I'm sure I mix these up from time to time...I probably use "me" more than it is probably prudent and correct for me to do. Wait there I go again.

What's the Rule for That?

We use some forms of punctuation and sentence construction with little awareness (I speak for that the correct form??...) of whether we're violating any of the critical rules of grammar that we were taught in elementary school (or perhaps should have been taught):

  • gerunds and pronouns - a gerund is a verb in the -ing form. Running, driving, flying. Gerunds should be preceded by possessive pronouns. For instance, instead of writing, "I didn't like him driving the car so fast," use, "I didn't like his driving the car so fast."
  • commas - here's how I use commas: (1) act as a brief pause in a sentence, (2) separate clauses, and (3) separate items in a series. A good test, read a sentence out loud, you should be able to "hear" where commas are needed. Also, I always use two commas in an A, B, and C series. This might be a preference, but I think it avoids confusion. Sometimes though, commas just appear randomly in my sentences, and when I read back through my writing I puzzle over what I was thinking.
  • commas versus parenthesis versus dashes versus hyphens - Commas should be used to separate clauses, mild breaks in emphasis or rhythm, whereas parentheses should be used for larger digressions (I like to use parentheses). Dashes should be used to emphasize an important point--this helps draw attention--within a sentence. Hyphens are used to link words, which is useful whenever you want a smartly-written clause.
  • semi colons and colons - semi colons separate unrelated clauses in a sentence and colons link elements together: "I had plenty of punctuation choices to use: commas, colons, periods, and parentheses.", "He didn't write a word all night; his writer's block showed no signs of ending."
  • e.g versus i.e. - use e.g. when providing an example. "There are 30 Major League Baseball teams (e.g. Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees)." Use i.e. when clarifying a point. "Smaller market teams have a harder time competing in baseball (i.e. Kansas City Royals)." I'm guilty of using i.e. when I should use e.g. I think that's correct anyway, because until this paragraph, I'm pretty sure I had not used e.g. ever in this blog.

This discussion could fill pages and pages, but hopefully the point is made. Using our language, writing our language, is hard work. I strive to write excellently, I hope my writing is at least professional, and with care I (and you) can avoid those common, if not simple, errors.


Oh, feel free to comment on all the mistakes that are undoubtedly litter this post. The Man's hawk-eyed review will hopefully lead the pack.


  1. I appreciate your care when writing your blog. I do sometimes see an occassional error, but aren't we all guilty of that? You do beautiful work irregardless - of course I jest. You do beautiful work regardless.

  2. Nice post. What about "further" and "farther"? I always get those two confused.

  3. Further and farther, a good examples, and I should have included it. Here's the answer:

    Farther refers to distance, further refers to amount or time; however, further could also mean distance (depends on your preference). The distance between Baltimore and Chicago is farther than I wanted to drive. His insults about our new boss went further than I thought was necessary.

  4. Anonymous 1 (the first comment) - thanks for your compliment. I'm glad you enjoy reading; I'll try and keep the errors to a minimum.

  5. Great post. I did spot some "errors," though; and since you solicited my comments, here you go:

    1. Who/whom - Technically correct is “The Man writes better than he.” Hence, “The Man writes better than who?” Him is tempting, but wrong because of the ellipsis ("than he [writes]").
    2. I/me - I like that you err on the side of "me." Excessive use of "I" is an unfortunate trend in the language.
    3. Commas – The fancy term for the final comma in an A, B, and C series is the "Oxford Comma." Journalists tend to omit it. I prefer it, because it tends to reduce ambiguity.
    4. Dashes – There are two types of dashes: the em-dash (“—“) and the en-dash (“–“). They have different functions. The double-hyphens that you use in your example are a convenient substitute for the em-dash. (On putting spaces around the em-dash, I’ve seen publishers go both ways. My preference is for no spaces, but readability often demands otherwise.)
    5. Hyphens – Should be "smartly written clause." Never use a hyphen to connect an –ly adverb with another word when constructing a compound adjective.
    6. “semicolon” – One word, not two.
    7. “e.g.” vs. “i.e.” – When you read "i.e.," think “that is” or "in other words." In your example, I would have used “e.g.” to introduce the Kansas City Royals, because there are other smaller market teams who have trouble competing; the Royals are just an example. (Or am I missing something?)

    Odds are, I made some mistakes in this post as well.

  6. The Man,

    To your points:
    1. This is why I don't use "whom."

    2. I agree, though I seem to use "I'm" and "I'll" abundantly in personal correspondence.

    3. Oxford Comma - very good, and yes, I use them to avoid ambiguity.

    4. How do you use the en-dash? How is it different than a hyphen?

    5. You're absolutely right. I'm no grammarian - I hope this post doesn't pretend otherwise. I could have rewritten my phrase as: "A clause written smartly," something characteristic of "ly" adverbs. Adverbs not ending in "ly" should be connected to a following descriptive word: Conroy is a Baltimore-based writer. Or: Conroy has a devil-may-care approach to grammar. (Not necessarily true.)

    6. I could have at least threw a hyphen in there, but yes, one word not two (where's the spell check on that?).

    7. You're probably right that I should have used e.g. instead of i.e. for the Kansas City Royals example. I'll claim fatigue in not thinking of a better example. I'll claim the same thing in not thinking of a better example now.

    I hope I continue with these types of mistakes.

  7. Personally, I use the en-dash to indicate ranges, particularly date and page ranges. I don't know if anybody else does this. It's slightly longer than a hyphen. Sadly, the font in these comment boxes doesn't differentiate between a hyphen and an en-dash, and the em-dash appears to be an en-dash. You can see the differences between these characters if you go into Microsoft Word: Insert / Symbol / Special Characters.

    I have my own shortcut keys in Microsoft Word for both en-dashes and em-dashes, but Word creates them automatically in some cases. So, for instance, if you type two hyphens after the last letter of a word and then begin typing the next word, with no spaces before or after the hyphens, they will automatically convert into an em-dash by default when you hit the space-bar after the second word, which is convenient.

    Maybe spell check didn't pick up the semicolon error because each part ("semi" and "colon") is also an independent word.

    By the way, I really liked the entire post, and I'm glad you wrote it. It's fun and edifying to have these kinds of discussions, and your selections, particularly your selection of easily confused words, were excellent.

    1. This is a fantastic post and i also have noticed this type of mistakes in many places and myself also some time do this mistake and i think we should remember the standards of English and should consult with dictionary if needed and Oxford is the best dictionary.