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The Word Nerd: Six Pitfalls Writers (And Others) Should Avoid

That’s right, I admit it. I’m a word nerd. I pick, pick, pick at the way you express yourself.

Despite protests of apathy, people of all ages care about how well they express themselves. Deep down, everyone likes to be right about language, and you can even hear little kids teasing each other about talking funny. We word nerds have an advantage here, but we certainly don’t choose to be word nerds. It’s thrust upon us. Believe me, a lot of us would rather be star quarterbacks. No one ever got a date by discoursing on split infinitives.

I thought you might be interested in some of the current trends and tendencies in modern ignorance. It might be fun to watch with me the inexorable erosion of our language—and civilization—and we can gnash our teeth and wring our hands and feel secretly smug and superior. That’s what word nerds do for a good time. So let’s roll:

Fortuitous  It most emphatically does not mean “lucky” or “fortunate”; it simply means “by chance,” a much less optimistic denotation, since you can win the lottery fortuitously or get flattened by a truck fortuitously.

Notoriety  Another badly botched word these days, “notoriety” has somehow become a good thing: “Burgess gained notoriety with his wildly popular children’s books.” But can’t you hear the “notorious” in “notoriety”? There are all kinds of fame; “notoriety” is one of the bad kinds, just down the pike from “infamy.”

Impact  “How does the proposition impact property taxes?” or “Greenhouse gas emissions negatively impact the environment.” This is pretentious twaddle. “To impact” means to pack tightly together, as in “an impacted tooth.” In sentences like the two examples above, simply use “affect” instead, and you’ll sleep the serene slumber of the saintly.

Literally  “Literally” is supposed to mean “100 percent fact”—period. But not today, when “literally” now is commonly used figuratively! How sad that a no-nonsense word with such a strict meaning has been so hideously compromised. Any sentence with “literally” means what it literally says, and when we hear it, we are being asked to believe our ears, rather than interpret or infer. So if you tell me you “literally hit the ceiling,” I’d suggest you move to a place with higher ceilings.

I recently read about a couple whose dreams “literally collapsed” when, unfortunately, a fixer-upper they bought came down in a heap as they started working on it. Now, we know what the writer meant, but just don’t mess around with “literally,” OK? The house literally collapsed, not the dream. How could a dream, the very essence of all that is beyond materiality, literally collapse? It’s utter gibberish.

The simple solution? Just say “virtually.” “Virtually” allows you to enhance and embellish to your heart’s content, options you relinquish by using “literally.”

Comprise is the most misused and misunderstood two-syllable word in common English usage. It seems straightforward enough: it means to contain, consist of, take in, embrace. But when used on its own, it’s usually mangled. “Joey, Johnny, and Fritz comprise a group of daredevils.” Sorry, but the group comprises (contains, consists of) Joey, Johnny, and Fritz. Which brings us to…

Comprised of  This ubiquitous phrase is wrong every time. It’s the result of confusing and incorrectly combining “comprise” and “composed of.” It’s both ignorant and pompous, a lethal combo. “Composed of” is so mundane and “comprised of” just sounds ever so much cleverer, doesn’t it? Too bad there’s no justification for it. Quick fix: simply replace it with “comprise.” Wrong: “The team is comprised of Chicagoans.” Right: “The team comprises Chicagoans.” Far better: The team is composed of Chicagoans.

Well, that’s all we have time for this week. Now you know why I spend my Saturday nights alone, watching mysteries.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Monday, January 28, 2013, at 1:50 pm


Stubborn Stinkaroos

This election year’s political dialogue has divided the country into the obscenely ultra-rich one percent and the ninety-nine percent who comprise the poor, the shrinking middle class and the, I guess you could say, tastefully affluent.

Compare that with the literary one-percenters, a mulish minority of nitpickers who believe “proper” speaking and writing preserve English’s power and beauty. Most other people by contrast are unapologetically indifferent, and tend to dismiss these sticklers as socially challenged nerds and snobs.

When government policies seem to court and coddle the wealthiest one percent, populists call it a violation and betrayal of American principles.

Not so in the world of letters, where the best writers write for the one-percenters — and why not? Who better to appreciate your writing than those who study and cherish English? Besides, it’s not a class thing. Language aficionados come from all walks of life.

America has always been enamored of its rebels and mavericks — and ambivalent toward those who follow the rules. But rules and laws are the distillation of hard lessons learned by our forebears. Rules wouldn’t exist if this flawed species didn’t need them.

When grammarians say a sentence is “right” or “wrong” they mean it adheres to or defies rules that have endured through the years and proved time and again to be the straightest path to the truth.

The following is a list of bad choices that you see and hear all the time. They’re not major blunders, but they’re misguided in a way that can compromise serious discourse.

Utilize All the way back in the 1940s George Orwell blew the whistle on this pretentious word. Orwell advised writers to get over themselves and go with “use.” But use is so humble, so mundane, whereas utilize really sounds like something. Bureaucrats in particular love to use “utilize.”

Fulsome Many people take fulsome to mean “abundant” or “lavish.” But be wary of writing the likes of “He received a fulsome tribute” or “Please accept my fulsome apology.” The word actually means something darker: “excessive,” “fawning,” even “disgusting.”

Youth There aren’t many synonyms for children. After kids, young people, and youngsters, the pickings get slim, especially if you eschew cutesy-poo. So, rejecting non-options like little ones, tykes, and tots, many writers eventually come around to youth. Trouble is, youth is singular; it’s cheesy to say, “Youth today are facing new challenges.” The obvious fix is “youths today,” even though a lot of scribes think “youths” is clunky.

Cliché It’s a noun, not an adjective. Yet more and more you hear things like, “I know it sounds cliché, but …” There’s an easy remedy: just add “like a”: “I know it sounds like a cliché.” What’s so hard about adding two painless syllables? You’ll make a word nerd’s day.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Pop Quiz
Choose the correct or preferred sentence.

1A. We enjoyed a fulsome feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.
1B. We enjoyed a lavish feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.

2A. I don’t know how to use even half of the functions available on my smart phone.
2B. I don’t know how to utilize even half of the functions available on my smart phone.

3A. Sorry, Joe, this may sound cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.
3B. Sorry, Joe, this may sound like a cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.

4A. Do you think today’s youth read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?
4B. Do you think today’s youths read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?

Pop Quiz Answers

1B. We enjoyed a lavish feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.
2A. I don’t know how to use even half of the functions available on my smart phone.
3B. Sorry, Joe, this may sound like a cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.
4B. Do you think today’s youths read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?

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Posted on Saturday, November 24, 2012, at 12:52 pm


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.)

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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.)

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


Paraprosdokian Sentences

This is from Dan, who offers us a new word and an idea worth understanding and enjoying. He suggests looking at Wikipedia’s link for more paraprosdokians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraprosdokian

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists. I hope you enjoy these!

Read more…

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Posted on Tuesday, August 31, 2010, at 11:28 am