Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

That’s what that means?

I know many avid readers, and I wish I read as much as they do. But to my surprise, very few of them read with a dictionary on hand. When I ask why, the answer is some variation on “It ruins the mood” or “I want to relax, not study” or the most self-deluded one: “I can figure out most words from the context.”

As for that last one, I can only say that I myself have guessed wrong on a word’s meaning too often to count, and many times if I had gone with what I guessed and not bothered to look it up, I’d have gravely misunderstood some of the author’s fundamental premises — yes, the stakes are that high.

I can illustrate this with a simple example: “Joe inferred that the judge was disinterested.” There are many smart people who would take that sentence to mean, “Joe insinuated that the judge didn’t care.” Boy, would they be wrong.

The sentence actually means, “Joe decided that the judge was unbiased.” Huge difference there. Would you rather have a judge who’s fair or one who wants to go home? “Disinterested” means “impartial.” It does not mean “apathetic” — that would be an uninterested judge.

And because so many people mistakenly think infer is a synonym for imply, a reader might see “inferred” and think Joe was hinting at something, when in fact he had reached a conclusion.

If just a simple seven-word sentence can cause such a misunderstanding, imagine tackling difficult authors like Lawrence Durrell or William Faulkner. Without a dictionary nearby, what you get out of these writers’ books might be a far cry from what they actually wrote.

So here are a few words that may not mean what you think they mean. Misinterpreting a key word can distort the meaning of a sentence and set off a chain reaction of misunderstanding that leaves the reader with a message the author never dreamed of sending.

Livid  When someone is “livid,” do you think of red, white, or blue? The best answer is blue, not red. “Livid” does not mean “red-faced with anger.” The Latin lividus means “of a bluish color.” Second-best answer is white: “livid” can be a synonym for “pale.”

Benighted  “He was a benighted soul in an enlightened time.” Many people associate it with “knighted,” and think “benighted” is a good thing to be. Far from it. Note the lack of a k — don’t think “knight,” think “night.” A benighted soul is clueless, ignorant, “in a state of moral or intellectual darkness.”

Scarify  is a benighted synonym for “terrify” — scarify has more to do with scar than scare. It means to scratch or make superficial incisions. It also has agricultural applications having to do with seeds and soil.

Meretricious  When you hear it, the first two syllables echo “merit,” and the word resembles meritorious. The similarity ends there. It means “flashy,” “cheap,” “tawdry”: “The candidate made a meretricious display of piety.”

(This tip was contributed by veteran copy editor Tom Stern.)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012, at 6:47 pm


Spell Check Overreach

My spell check has been drinking again. It just told me “déjà vu” should be “deejay.”

Everyone who uses Word software probably has some form of spell check. Mine — I call him “SC” — also makes occasionally helpful (but often just surreal) suggestions about grammar and punctuation. To be fair, SC sometimes saves me from my own carelessness. But all in all, I think I’d rather get dating tips from a praying mantis.

For less-experienced writers, spell check is a mushroom in the woods: be careful what you swallow. I once typed “public enemies” and SC wanted “enemy’s.” Nouns ending in y are tricky enough without bogus advice from a clueless tool. It pains me to think of all the insecure people who follow blindly.

SC is no panacea to grammar-challenged Americans. He changed “how is it possible” to “how it possible is,” and “all of the above” became “the entire above.”

The word snarky, referring to a snide attitude, has been in popular usage for a long time. But no one told SC, who thinks my hand slipped while I was trying to type “snaky” or “snarly.” Come to think of it, those two words pretty much sum up snarky. But that’s beside the point.

Another familiar term is “A-lister”: someone who’s show-business royalty. SC doesn’t get out much, so he thinks I must mean “lifter” or “luster” or “blister” — or even “leister,” which is a three-pronged fishing spear. That’s no way to describe Angelina Jolie!

And it’s not just trendy words that SC botches. The French word chez, referring to home or headquarters, has been prevalent in English usage since the early 18th century. So why does SC think I mean either a revolutionary (“Che”), a singer (“Cher”) or some bloke named “Chet”?

For several decades, Luddite has been a handy word for someone who rejects or is confounded by modern technology: “I’m such a Luddite I can’t program my DVR.” You’d think SC could do better than “landsite” or “audited.”

Clearly, at this point, spell check is too erratic. The irony is that it’s least valuable to those who need it most.

(This tip was contributed by veteran copy editor Tom Stern.)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2012, at 1:42 pm


When vs. Whenever

Have you ever wondered how to use these words correctly? Have you ever thought, “Oh, either of these words will do”? Let’s have a closer look.

Rule 1 – If an event is unique or its date or time is known, use when.

Examples:
The game will begin Friday evening when the clock strikes seven.
When I told you I wanted a vacation, I meant a cabana by the beach, not a ticket to the Super Bowl!
She loved to play baseball with the neighborhood kids when she was a youngster.

Rule 2 – Whenever is best used for repeated events or events whose date or time is uncertain. If you can substitute every time that or at whatever time that in your sentence, then whenever is preferred.

Examples:
Whenever I get in the shower, the phone rings.
Whenever you decide to begin eating healthier foods, I’ll help you come up with new recipes.

Note: When can often substitute for whenever but generally not the other way around. The exception is using whenever as an intensive form of when in questions: Whenever will that dog stop barking?

Examples:
Correct:
When I get in the shower, the phone rings. (When is acceptable but whenever is preferred for conveying the meaning every time that.)
When you decide to begin eating healthier foods, I’ll help you come up with new recipes. (When is acceptable but whenever is preferred for conveying the meaning at whatever time that.)
Whenever are you going to finish cleaning the garage? (intensive form in a question)

Incorrect:
The game will begin Friday evening whenever the clock strikes seven.

 

Pop Quiz
1. Do you know when/whenever we’re supposed to arrive at your mother’s house?
2. Let me know when/whenever you’ll be arriving at the airport next week so I can pick you up.
3. When/Whenever the baby cries, she clenches her little fists.
4. I lived in a small town when/whenever I was seven years old.
5. Do you recheck your math when/whenever you have difficulty balancing your checkbook?

 

Answers:
1. Do you know when we’re supposed to arrive at your mother’s house?
2. Let me know when you’ll be arriving at the airport next week so I can pick you up.
3. Whenever the baby cries, she clenches her little fists. (When could also be used but whenever better conveys the meaning every time that the baby cries.)
4. I lived in a small town when I was seven years old.
5. Do you recheck your math whenever you have difficulty balancing your checkbook? (When could also be used but whenever better conveys the meaning at the time that or every time that you have difficulty balancing your checkbook.)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 4, 2012, at 12:59 pm


Pronouncing the Word “Blessed”

We recently received inquiries from some of our readers regarding the proper way to pronounce blessed. The word blessed can be used and pronounced in two different ways.

Rule 1. When blessed is used as a verb, it is pronounced with one syllable (blest):

Example for the pronunciation blest:

Devon is blessed with amazing athletic ability.

 

 Rule 2. When the word blessed is used as an adjective, adverb (blessedly), or noun (blessedness), blessed is pronounced with two syllables (bles-id).

Examples for the pronunciation bles-id:

Annie’s baptism was a blessed moment, particularly for her devoted grandparents.

Blessed are the poor.

 

Pop Quiz

1. The priest blessed (pronounced blest or bles-id) the candles at the ceremony.

2. The couple was blessed (pronounced blest or bles-id) with a healthy baby girl.

3. I don’t have a blessed (pronounced blest or bles-id) dime to my name.

 

Answers:

1. The priest blessed (pronounced blest) the candles at the ceremony.

2. The couple was blessed (pronounced blest) with a healthy baby girl.

3. I don’t have a blessed (pronounced bles-id) dime to my name.

 

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Saturday, August 11, 2012, at 2:28 pm


Into vs. In To (Expanded)

When Jane authored the first Grammar Tip on this subject in 2009, her intention was to provide simple, concise guidance on the most commonly encountered uses of the words into and in to. But she knew that at some point we would need to explore this topic in more depth. Since issuing that Grammar Tip, we have responded to 247 questions from readers on a wide variety of situations regarding the use of into vs. in to!  So, there is no better time than now to go into more depth on this topic.

How does one know when to use into or in to?

1. One of the main uses of the preposition into is to indicate movement toward the inside of a place.

Examples

The children jumped into the lake for a swim.

Mom drove the car into the garage.

 

2. Into can indicate “in the direction of.”

Example

Do not look directly into the laser or you may damage your eyes.

 

3. Into can refer to a state or condition.

Example

He got into trouble.

The caterpillar changed into a butterfly.

 

4. Into can indicate occupation or involvement.

Examples

The couple went into farming.

Unfortunately, her brother got into drugs.

 

5. Into can imply introduction, insertion, or inclusion.

Examples

The nations entered into an alliance.

Marguerite was hired into the firm.

Jojo incorporated my comments into the final document.

 

6. Into can indicate a point within time or space.

Example

We are now well into the year.

The spacecraft went into orbit around the moon.

 

7. Into is used as a divisor in math.

Example

The number 4 goes into 8 two times.

 

As you can see, there are many different situations where it is correct to use the word into. However, sometimes the words in (adverb) and to (preposition) just happen to find themselves neighbors, and they must remain separate words.

Examples

Rachel dived back in to rescue the struggling boy. [Here, in is part of the verb “dived in,” and to belongs with “rescue” (forming the infinitive) and means “in order to,” not “where.”]

The administrators wouldn’t give in to the demands of the protestors.

He turned his essay in to the teacher.

Using the word into in the last example would be a big mistake. It would mean he performed some kind of amazing magic trick that made his essay become the teacher!

 

I know this has been one of our longest Grammar Tips ever. However, 247 comments over the last two plus years indicated that we needed to cover this subject more thoroughly. I hope this lesson helped. Try your hand at the Pop Quiz, which includes some of the questions readers have submitted.

 

Pop Quiz

1. As a child, I was too afraid to go into/in to the Halloween haunted house.

2. I’m going to turn the wallet I found into/in to the police.

3. If your battery is running low, you’ll need to plug your power cord into/in to the socket.

4. I will look into/in to the options you have suggested.

5. She came into/in to warm her hands and feet.

6. Her brother Billy is really into/in to sports.

7. Excuse me, I’m going to tune into/in to watch the nightly news.

8. The agreement goes into/in to effect on October 1.

 

Answers:

1. As a child, I was too afraid to go into/in to the Halloween haunted house.

2. I’m going to turn the wallet I found into/in to the police.

3. If your battery is running low, you’ll need to plug your power cord into/in to the socket.

4. I will look into/in to the options you have suggested.

5. She came into/in to warm her hands and feet.

6. Her brother Billy is really into/in to sports.

7. Excuse me, I’m going to tune into/in to watch the nightly news.

8. The agreement goes into/in to effect on October 1.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2012, at 1:08 pm