Monday, October 19, 2020

Those Tricky Words

I just don't have time to do all I want anymore. Or should that be any more? English loves to keep writers on their toes with words like these. For example, if I'm surprised that someone ate every blasted cookie I baked that morning, I huff into the room with the empty cookie jar and demand, “Clarence, how could you eat all of these already?" But what about all ready? 

Why couldn’t English be more logical and clearer?
The problem about English, well about human language in general, is nobody “designed” it. And maybe I shouldn’t call it a problem at all, because like humans, language has evolved and survived as a most fascinating part of our world. English is all about life and how it changes. We borrow from other languages when people immigrate, conquer their neighbors, and marry into different cultures. Our language changes because new ideas, new inventions, new ways of doing things come into existence. This process is irregular and unpredictable, so it’s no wonder we’re confused about something as simple as word choice. 

Then there’s the fact that spoken English changes far faster than the written form, so we hear the “wrong” word choice a long time before what is “wrong” to set down on the page becomes “right.” One thing grammarians and linguists agree on is that we must have rules, otherwise, we definitely won’t be able to communicate with the written word.  

To continue in the tradition of the rule makers and followers, here’s a quick reference for those tricky words. I hope this list of some of the most often confused words and how to use them will come in handy when you’re editing. 

Refers to time
He doesn’t live here anymore.
Any more
Refers to quantities
I don’t have any more money.

Lying (Lie)
This verb doesn’t take an object. 
Brutus was lying on the rug. /Brutus lies on the rug every night.
Laying (Lay)
This verb takes an object. 
The hens are laying eggs like crazy./The hens lay eggs a lot these days. 
Note: Just in case you forgot all that boring grammar, the object is the noun following the verb. In the sentences for laying/lay the object is “eggs.”
All ready
Describes being  completely prepared
Dinner is all ready.
Describes something completed in time.  
I’ve already done that.  

Lose /lewz/
Present tense of to lose, a verb opposite of find
Did you lose your wallet?
Loose /lews/
An adjective meaning the opposite of tight.
I lost ten pounds, so my pants are loose around my waist.

A noun meaning something offered as helpful guidance in making decisions or taking action.
I should have taken your advice and not bought this car.
A verb meaning to offer someone guidance in making decisions or taking action.
I’d advise you not to buy that car.

Distance, but in a metaphorical sense. 
I want to further my career. 
Distance in a physical sense.
I can walk any farther tonight.
Note: This one is a slippery eel for a couple of reasons: Each one can be an adverb, an adjective, or a verb. And what is metaphorical anyway? Is “I can’t write any further tonight” metaphorical or physical? Tough call. Writers who can’t make up their minds opt for farther, and most readers aren’t going to nail you because they’re not sure either. This pair of words has caused no end of linguistic issues. In conversation you seldom hear further, so it seems that farther might be the winner here eventually. In the meantime, in written English try to make the right choice whenever possible.

A word used to describe someone famous.
Dr. Smoooze is an eminent surgeon.
A word used to describe something about to happen.
The fire is very close, so evacuation from the area is imminent.
Note: If you can hear that the “E” in eminent sounds more like the one in “every,” and the “I” in imminent is higher as in “impossible” that might help distinguish these two totally unrelated words.

If you can count it, use fewer.
I drank two glasses of wine last night, one fewer than the night before.
If you can’t count it, use less.
I drank less wine last night.
Note: Spoken English disregards this rule entire. Careful writers don’t. Not yet. 

A verb meaning to cause some change in someone or something. It’s a cause.
The loss of her beloved cat will seriously affect Prunella.
A noun meaning the result of some action or condition. 
Noun: Prunella’s breakdown was the effect of the loss of her beloved cat. (I hope the example is helpful in spite of the terrible sentence.)

Note: Effect is sometimes a verb as in “to effect change.” 

A noun meaning a basic rule or belief. Also chief.
Dinkle based his decision on the principle of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Dinkle’s principle concern is honesty.
The head of a school. 
Remember the princiPAL is your PAL. 

A noun or verb meaning something positive said or given to another.
I love getting compliments about my hair. 
Let me compliment you on how lovely your hair looks.
A thing that completes or brings to perfection
That dress complements your complexion.
Note: These two sound exactly alike (homophones), but they are totally unrelated. It’s all about the spelling.

A verb meaning to end something or someone completely.
The blast destroyed the outhouse.
Cranky Mosley destroyed my self-confidence with his remarks.
A verb meaning to reduce by ten percent.
The llamas were decimated by the storm. Fortunately, the other ninety percent are safe. 

A verb meaning to surround completely.
The neighborhood was enveloped by smoke.
A noun meaning something made of paper to hold letters.
Don’t lick the envelope. Use the sponge.

Do you have other confusing words that send you off to the dictionary when you’re writing? If I’m seriously in doubt, I often avoid the tricky words and find another way to tell the story. 


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

English is such a mash of languages.
Your examples are funny.

nashvillecats2 said...

Being English I quuite agree with you, so amny wods sounding the same yet spelt differently is confusing. Great post to read and interesting.

Enjoy this week.

Tyrean Martinson said...

I love the way our language offers so many possibilities, but I've been tripped up by some of these. I'm thankful for dictionaries and grammar guides.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I probably should print this out too. I always have to look up lay/lie. I can't keep it straight.

micheal pan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Helen said...

This is a handy/concise table of English language foibles(?) Thankyou. This is very handy. Then there are the mother's favorite was in a paperback book she was reading..."His blood was cursing through his veins." She laughed and said she could see the blood shouting, 'God damn it, god damn it...'

Annalisa Crawford said...

This is great! My dad always corrects my usage of further/farther. It's his one grammatical bugbear, which I find amusing because he's a math-head at heart.

Lidy said...

My husband likes to say English is mad.
Pinning this because always get confused between when to use effect or affect.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent post, Lee. I need to print this chart out.

Mirka Breen said...

Excellent, as others have noted^.
My personal stumble is prenatally the Lie/lay

Jemi Fraser said...

I write in past tense and I go to great lengths to avoid the word 'lay' in all its tenses!!

Rainbowhand said...

phew! a couple of words I get confused about here, thanks!

Toi Thomas said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I've blogged so many times about how crazy the English language is. Good examples.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee - this is so useful ... thankfully I don't need to use - but appreciate so many others have struggles (to put them mildly) with our language - I love it ... as it's so different, and always evolving - though I do need to go back in time occasionally - losing words from the dictionary upsets me. Ah well ... thanks for this essential post - at some stage I want to do a post on writing ... one day!! Take care and all the best - Hilary

cleemckenzie said...

Thanks everyone for your visit, and I'm glad the chart was helpful. I guess I should have gone into the past tens, especially for that bugger "lie, lay," but I didn't. Like Jemi, I avoid using the past tense of the transitive "to lay." It's not used commonly in spoken English, and my bet is, it will fall into disuse completely . It may take a while, but not using it is the best solution. (It's laid if you're dying to know)

Fundy Blue said...

Oh thank you, Lee! This clarifies some of the words that make me crazy!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

The day the teacher was teaching about LIE, LY, LAY, I must have been home sick because even when I think I finally get it... I don't. Thank goodness for sticky notes. Thanks, Lee.

Rebecca M. Douglass said...

Great post! Now, if you can come up with some way for me to remember compliment/complement. I know the difference--I just can never remember which is which :D

Pat Garcia said...

I have read this article and want to say thank you. I run to my dictionaries and my thesaurus all the time. I would be lost without them.

Shalom aleichem,

PJ Colando said...

Thanks for the handy-dandy, chuckle-worthy list - English is an amble-scramble language every day, ready to trip up the most earnest writers among us. Thank goodness for the built-in Dictionary of WORD.