You deserve an apology.
Your entire life, you’ve been tortured by a misleading, maddening prankster. This notorious troublemaker is fickle. Illogical. Slippery with a streak of sadism.
I’m talking about the English language.
In English, bow rhymes with how. But it also rhymes with so. So sounds like sew but has a completely different meaning. English is the language that brought you colonel.
It’s no wonder that writing feels so perilous. Is it discrete or discreet? Compliment or complement? Where do the apostrophes and commas go? Is autocorrect my friend or nemesis?
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I have good news. I’ve written a book that can help you navigate the choppy, shark-filled waters of this diabolical language of ours. It’s called Unflubbify Your Writing: Bite-Sized Lessons to Improve Your Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar, and it’s filled with simple clarifications and fun, easy ways to remember how to keep all this nonsense straight.
Here is a sampling of what you’ll learn:
- Don’t use an apostrophe to pluralize.
Even though stores will sometimes tell you that they have banana’s or bullet’s, they shouldn’t. Those unnecessary apostrophes are called grocer’s apostrophes, and if you look that phrase up on the internet, you can find some tragic tattoos like No regret’s.
- Logic will get you nowhere.
Restaurateur does not include the word restaurant. Sacrilegious does not include the word religious. Ingenious does not include the word genius. English does not include consistency.
- Forego and forgo are two different words.
To forgo is to go without. You might decide to forgo strip clubs, cigars, donuts, or dog racing, if you’re willing to forgo the pleasure they bring you. To forego, on the other hand, means to precede. That’s why the lease on your regrettable timeshare refers to foregoing paragraphs.
Tips: Notice (and remember) that the word forgo has decided to forgo the letter e. And since forego means to go before, you can remember that both words contain fore.
- This is a comma splice, people make this mistake all the time.
The foregoing (!) sentence is really two complete sentences held together inappropriately by nothing but a teensy-weensy comma. A semicolon could have handled the job. Or if the comma had help from a coordinating conjunction like and or but, that would have worked. But as it is? A comma splice. Technically, a no-no.
- There is no i in bated breath.
Bait is all about luring—it’s the word to use when you’re dealing with fishhooks or sting operations. To bate, on the other hand, means to lessen in intensity—to diminish. (Think of abating.) When you wait with bated breath, you’re so anxious or eager that you’re holding or restraining your breath.
- Me is not a dirty word.
It’s simply an object, whereas I serves as a subject. In the same way you would say, “Kittens scare me” or “dentists hate me,” you should say, “The paparazzi followed Beyoncé and me.” (Just try removing “Beyoncé and” from the previous sentence. You wouldn’t say, “The paparazzi followed I,” right?)
- Use fewer for things you can count and less for things you can’t.
You might wish for fewer parking tickets, fewer robocalls, or fewer wrinkles, but less insomnia, debt, and cat fur.
Yes, but: There are some colloquial exceptions to this rule, usually with time and money. I might, for example, tell you I can only meditate for less than twenty seconds or that I paid less than fifty bucks for my Rolex.
- Who’s is a contraction whose spelling gives everyone trouble.
Who’s is always a contraction of who is or who has. Who’s (who has) been in my underwear drawer? Who’s (who is) going to post my bail? The word whose, on the other hand, shows possession. He’s the congressman whose sexts ended up on Twitter. I’m the copywriter whose book just got published.
- This may be helpful. But maybe not.
Maybe is an adverb that means perhaps. Maybe we can arrive at an agreement. Or maybe I’ll tell your wife. May be is a verb phrase that’s very close in meaning to might be. You may be right: She may be an undercover cop.
Memory trick: Notice that maybe and its synonym perhaps are both one word, while may be and the similar might be are both two-word verb phrases.
- Pouring over is for baristas.
Because they pour hot water over fair-trade shade-grown Guatemalan coffee.
Pore over those handy-dandy red letters above and burn them into your memory.
English is tricky, to be sure. But the better you understand its wily ways, the more you can enjoy your relationship with it, and the more fun you can have writing.
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