word choice

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

~Mark Twain

Okay, fine. No, punctuation does not account for every grammatical issue. Simply from my experience as a teacher I’ve come to believe punctuation accounts for 95% of the problems, but roughly 5% of the time there’s a different confusion to blame: tricky word choice.

Here you will find my best attempts to untangle those snarls in layman’s terms (or layperson’s terms, to be more gender neutral). Scroll down for help with deciphering between homophones, gender-neutral pronouns, subjunctive verbs, and who vs whom.

mixed-up homophones

These are by far the most common word-choice errors I see as a teacher: when two different spellings sound the same and students choose the wrong one. See if these mnemonic ideas below can help you memorize which is which.

  • ad vs add: one is short for advertisement, which has only one d; the other comes from addition and adds another d
  • a lot vs allot: when you’ve got tons of something, you want to emphasize each word—that’s A LOT of stuff—so remember the space (“alot” is not a word haha); the similar word “allot” with two l’s and no space is a verb we don’t use as much, and it means to give someone a certain portion, like “all” of that “lot”
  • a part vs apart: these are opposites, so the space is crucial; if you are a part of something, you belong, whereas if something is torn apart or set apart it is separated from the rest; think of the space as the space of belonging, and no space is not belonging
  • brake vs break: a brake stops a vehicle (notice they both end in e), while a break stops your work (which also ends with a k); as a verb, brake keeps the same context while break becomes a bad thing (braking your car (stopping it) = good; breaking your car (hurting it) = not so good)
  • breath vs breathe: breath is with the soft e sound, it’s the thing you see in front of you when it’s cold, but usually it’s invisible (which can help you remember no e at the end); breathe is the verb form, meaning to take breaths, and has the long e sound—so long that it spills onto the end of the word
  • choose vs chosechoose has that nice ooh sound that the spelling suggests, while chose uses a long oh sound
  • cite/sight/site: you Cite a sourCe with a Careful Citation; your eye sight might be impaired at night; and a site is a location that can be physical or virtual—like a picnic site where you fly a kite or a website for how to build a kite
  • definite vs defiantdefinite is finite, certain, or defined—you definitely or certainly want what you want or know what you know etc; defiant, on the other hand, breaks into defy and ant—it’s about defiance, rebellion, doing what someone (an ant?) doesn’t want you to do
  • effect vs affect: for simplicity’s sake, remember that effect is the noun — like cause and effect — while affect is the verb, used when something affects you
  • every day vs everyday: the space creates more emphasis—something you do every … day—while the compound word is for describing ordinary, everyday occurrences of life
  • exercise vs exorcise: one has to do with health, which has an E, and the other has to do with ghosts, which has an O
  • few vs phewfew has fewer (not so many) letters, whereas phew is longer because it’s a long sigh of relief
  • granite vs granted: one is used to make countertops and the other is used to make concessions; granite with that -ite is like graphite and stalactite and calcite and other geological rocks/minerals, but verbs, on the other hand, end with -ed once they’re done—after you grant permission or grant that someone has a good point, then it’s been granted
  • have vs of: the trouble here is that in common speech we shorten have to ’ve  (I wish I could’ve come), making it sound like of even though the spelling isn’t even close; of is a preposition showing that something belongs to something else (“the earl of Gloucestershire” means that earl belongs to Gloucestershire, or “of course” means whatever was said belongs to the usual course of things)
  • lose vs loose: you lose an o with lose, whereas loose feels loose because it’s got two o’s
  • patience vs patients: the –nce suffix is used for a state/quality, like the essence of something, while –nts is used for plural entities, like ants
  • peaked vs piqued: to peak is to reach a maximum point, while to pique is to cause curiosity, interest, annoyance or anger; remember that peak is like a mountain (highest point) while pique with a –que might lead to questions
  • than vs then: than is for comparisons, as in greater than, less than, etc; then is for timing, as in what happened next or what will happen if (if → then)
  • there/their/they’re: there is related to here except a little farther off, so it needs an extra letter; their is like your or our — it ends with an r reaching out to take possession of whatever comes next; they’re is they hooking into are with an apostrophe to create a contraction (they are)
  • through vs threw: one is a preposition (through the tunnel) and one is a verb (he threw the ball); you could picture that tunnels are long, so through needs more letters to get through, while threw is a fast action requiring fewer letters
  • whole vs hole: whole is “complete” while a hole is an absence of something, like say, an absence of the letter w
  • your vs you’re: stop and think about whether you mean it belongs to you (your shirt) or you mean you are

singular gender-neutral pronouns

Here’s a hazardous subject: when you want a pronoun that could replace he or she so as to apply to anyone without offending either gender, what’s the best alternative?

For a while, politically correct discourse leaned toward awkward variations of he/she, s/he, (s)he, and he or she. 

More recently the trend has been to switch off, such as using she in your first example and he in the next, back and forth.

Another option is to reword the sentence to make the pronoun plural:

  • If anyone wants to participate, he/she will need to fill out the form.
  • If people want to participate, they will need to fill out the form.

A 2015 Wall Street Journal article, however, suggests that grammarians are beginning to accept the “incorrect” usage people have been leaning toward for centuries:

  • If anyone wants to participate, they will need to fill out the form.

Depending on the situation’s level of formality, any of these possibilities could work. The one that is definitely OUT is the antiquated practice of using only he to mean anyone. 

subjunctive mood

Subjunctive mood is used when discussing something imaginary—a condition or possibility that is not past, present or future, just suggested. It often uses a word like if or suppose or wish to throw the sentence out of past/present/future time, which then alters the operative verb.

  • If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard. 
  • I demand that he leave immediately.
  • He suggested they be given a salary raise.

Notice that in past, present, or future tense, these would be different verbs:

  • was/am/will be a rich man.
  • He left/leaves/will leave immediately.
  • They were/are/will be given a salary raise.

Sometimes the verb uses half of the infinitive form (such as to leave or to be, removing to), such as in the he leave and they be examples above. But the most common subjunctive verb is were, as in these examples from The New York Times style guide:

  • The mayor wishes the commissioner were retiring this year [not was retiring, because the commissioner is staying on].
  • If the commissioner were rich, she could retire [not was rich, because she needs the salary].
  • If the bill were passed, taxes could go down [not was passed, because it is still just a hope].

Admittedly, other languages, such as Spanish, use subjunctive mood much more regularly than English. In English it’s used the most by those who pride themselves on their careful speech or by publications whose hawk-eyed readers will be sure to pounce on errors of I wish I was versus I wish I were. It can sometimes be considered a mark of those who are “better educated,” though technically it’s only a sign they were better educated in the minutiae of grammar.

Still, Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas, Darling” (“I wish I were with you”) and Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man” get major points for grammatically correct lyrics, while incorrect usage can grate on the ears of those who know.

(See also Grammarist’s “Subjunctive Mood,” Grammar Girl’s “Subjunctive Verbs,” and The New York Times’s “Save the Subjunctive!”)

who vs whom

Like the subjunctive mood above, the distinction between who and whom is often ignored altogether and is possibly even fading out, but those who care about sounding articulate and well educated still prefer to select the right pronoun for each context.

Who and whom work the same way as other sets of subject/object pronouns like he and him, she and her, I and me. He and him is probably the easiest to work with, so ask yourself which one you would use to answer your who/whom question. Who/whom will Jill ask to the dance? She will ask him. Therefore, the question should be Whom will Jill ask to the dance?

One place that might throw you off is where our grammar has slipped. When asking, “Who/whom is that?” we might be tempted to say, “That is him.” Colloquially, that’s become “correct” because everyone uses it now, but grammatically it should be “That is he.” So the question would be “Who is that?”

But as the Comma Queen from The New Yorker points out in her video below, in songs and casual conversation it might be better to stick with who altogether. Use whom when the formality of the context necessitates precise usage.

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