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Thursday, February 5, 2009



In the interest of making this more interesting and readable than simply looking things up in the dictionary, I offer here a random sampling of words that often seem to cause problems in both written and spoken English. To that end, nothing is in alphabetical order.

Some of the problems stem from cultural laziness; taking shortcuts in the proper pronunciation of common, everyday words—a study known in our grandparent’s generation as ‘elocution’—it was a specific subject taught in school. The fact that this is no longer taught as a subject unto itself is blatantly evident today.

One of the most common, and most grating misuses is the confusion of “then” and “than.” It seems that the majority of misuse with this pair of words errs on the side of always using “then” and forgetting the existence of “than.”
I have lost count of how often I have come across the misuse of “then” in this vein: “I would rather have chocolate pie then cherry.” This is wrong because “then” is a word referring to time sequence. The proper use of “then” would be as in this example: “I went to the bank, then I went to the store.” In the choice of pie example above, “than” is the correct usage: “I would rather have chocolate pie than cherry.” “Than” is a word for comparisons and statements of preference; it has nothing to do with time or sequence. You could also correctly say, “I ate the chocolate pie and then I ate the cherry pie, but I liked the chocolate better than the cherry.”

Other less common mistakes occur when someone seems to simply not know the definition of a given word. In more than one case, I have heard folks mix up “fray” and “frail.” One lady I used to know always would speak of her coat “frailing.” Worse than using the wrong word, she also added an incorrect suffix in an attempt to make it into an active present tense. “Frail” is not a verb—it cannot take such an attempt to assign tense. To fray is to come undone; to unravel or become ragged. Frail means weak; not strong. Correct usages of this pair: “The sleeve of my jacket is starting to fray.” “My grandmother has become very frail.”

English is a devilishly confusing language, I’ll agree. It is filled with unruly words that change their meaning with a whim of pronunciation, yet don’t change their spelling. “Present” comes to mind. To “present arms” is spelled exactly the same as its use in “give a present.” The shift happens in the emphasis on the syllable, and with the change of the first “e” from long to short.

Language, however, is fluid, and does change over time. For example, a hundred years ago, “ain’t” was acceptable common usage. Now it is considered grammatically incorrect, and disdained as slang, uneducated usage. “Gay” is another case in point: its original meaning was, “carefree, happy, lighthearted.”

I can well imagine that in another hundred years, thanks in large measure to the internet with its chat rooms, instant messaging, and other forms of electronic communication, that we will see other words elided (that is, shortened, with their spelling changed). The one I see most often is the substitution/abbreviation of “prolly” as a stand-in for “probably.” There are others, I know. Perhaps an Internet dictionary is in order. ;-)

Some words are mixed up because someone is trying to show off their idea of advanced vocabulary, when in fact, they do not know the true meaning of the words they are using. “Flout” and “flaunt” are a pair that fall into this trap. “Flout” means to show disregard for, to ignore, and do as one pleases despite a rule. “His habit of flouting the law got him into continual trouble.” “Flaunt,” on the other hand, means to show off excessively; to be “in your face.” “She was flaunting the large diamond ring on her finger.”

At other times, the misuse falls rather under failure to have specific knowledge of a subject, not knowing the ‘jargon’ if you will. Most every adult knows what an autopsy is. However, many people will speak of an autopsy on an animal, whether found dead at the zoo, in a wildlife study, or of a beloved pet. This is incorrect—a dissection to determine cause of death on an animal is a necropsy.
Why? Well, I must get into a bit of Latin word origins for that one. the prefix “auto” means “self,” so an “auto-psy” is a dissection of a human being…one of ourselves. While necrosis is the state of being dead, and since animals are not “one of us,” but simply another life form that is deceased, so ‘necropsy’ is the correct terminology.
The "opsy" suffix common to both words, means to study a sample of; to examine for cause or pathology. Hence, a living person can have a biopsy taken of a body part or organ, for study to determine cause of illness. (Bio= life; live; living) and the 'opsy' suffix as discussed above.)

Lie, Lay, Lain: This triad is a bugaboo for many, many folks…(myself included!)…I have to keep a ‘cheat sheet’ handy when I’m writing. This is one of those annoying “irregular” verbs. Let’s sort it out:

To lie is to recline, as on a bed, or a command given to a dog, “lie down!” That is the present tense. Awkward though it may sound, the past tense is lay, “The dog lay down.” and the past participle is lain. “The dog has lain in this spot.”

Now, to “the other side” of this triad: lay in the present tense means to put, “Lay the book on the table.” Past tense, laid, “I laid the book on the table.” Ironically, the past participle of this set is the same as the past tense, laid. “I had laid the book on the table, and now it is gone.”

Next, I come to a pair I just heard misused the other day: collaborate and corroborate. Not synonymous, to be sure. To ‘collaborate,’ is to work together with another person or a team: “He collaborated with Charles and Gail to finish the project.” Corroborate means to agree, back up, or substantiate. “His testimony corroborated the claims of the other witnesses.”


And just for fun: Some $5. words for more common expressions:

Oeuvre: 1. a work of art. 2. the lifework of an artist, writer or composer

Aphorism: an adage or saying
(such as, "One man's drink is another man's poison," or, "He who lies with dogs wakes with fleas.")

Isogloss: a geographical boundary line delimiting the area in which a given linguistic feature occurs.
(Example: "limber cream" means heavy cream that is still liquid and has not been made into whipped cream. My grandfather came from New Bedford, Massachussetts, and I have not heard that expression anywhere else, nor has anyone else I know who does not hail from that area of the country.)

Solecism: 1. non-standard usage or grammatical construction. 2. a violation of etiquette. 3. an impropriety, mistake or incongruity.


Thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed this foray into the oddities of the English Language. There may be more articles forthcoming as I come across other problematic useages.

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