Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 | midnight
Words are the tools of our trade here. We don't like to see them abused.
Given the language mistakes showing up all over the place lately, we of course have our work cut out for us. So let's take the time for a few quick language tips. Here are examples of mistakes we frequently see, and how they could have been avoided.
- Using it's when you meant to write its. Or vice versa. The rule on this is easy to remember. The apostrophe in it's makes it a contraction, which means it has a verb. So it's should be used only when you're trying to say "it is" or "it was" or "it has." The word its, on the other hand, is used only as a possessive form, such as in "State government has its share of problems."
- Substituting irregardless for regardless . This is a frequent conversational boo-boo at cocktail parties, although when you've had a few cocktails, nobody seems to notice. Regardless is the only correct word. Irregardless is one of those double negatives your teachers used to warn you about. Correct usage example: "Regardless of what you say, I smell good."
- Mixing up insure and ensure. Memorize this: Insure is only used when referring to insurance. Period. On the other hand, ensure means to guarantee.
- Mistakenly writing a lot as one word. This is one of the more frequent errors. If you have a lot of something, it is written as two words, such as "I won a lot of nickels." In which case your friends may want you to allot some back to them, since that word means to give, allocate or allow.
- Saying or writing utilize when use will suffice. This isn't a mistake, but it drives me crazy, nonetheless. Utilize is one of those words people use when they are trying to be formal or technical, and it is generally unnecessary. Example: "We want to utilize your facilities." Better: "We want to use your bathroom."
- Using a semi-colon improperly. This is indeed a disturbing modern trend, and this language rule isn't easy to explain: The semicolon is used to indicate a greater separation of thought and information than a comma generally conveys, but less than the separation that a period implies. It is not the same as a colon, which I used correctly in the second sentence of this paragraph, and can also be placed at the end of a sentence to introduce a list of things. Whew.
- Wrongly substituting that and which. I will summarize what a journalism professor told me: Use which to kick off a clause following a comma. If there is no comma, use that. Correct use of which: "He quit reading the newspaper, which made me unhappy."
- Incorrect plurals of surnames. To put it succinctly, when you are writing about the entire Wilson family, you are writing about the Wilsons, not the Wilson's.
- Finally, here's one that has more recently joined my list: Incorrect usage of the ampersand, which is this symbol: &. It suddenly seems like people everywhere are making this mistake, probably as a result of being in a hurry. This rule is easy: Use the ampersand only when it is part of a formal business or organizational name. Never use it as a convenient way of abbreviating and.
Well, that's probably enough of a grammar drill for this week. I hope it helped.
Be careful with the lessons outlined here, though. And should you choose to bring up any grammar matters with friends or family, try to remain tactful, considerate and polite. Don't hurt anyone's feelings.
One young fellow learned this lesson the hard way when he first left home. He had a bad habit of using a red ink pen to correct language in the letters from his family, and then would send them back to the authors in the hope that they might learn from the experience. But the red ink insulted them, and they soon stopped writing altogether.
And you know, ever since then, I have had to utilize the telephone if I want to communicate with my relatives.
Bruce Spotleson is general manager of the Home News and group publisher of Greenspun Media Group. He can be reached at 990-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.