The War on Words – Jan. 2016

A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

The Top (Bottom?) 10

Herewith a list of the top 10 misused words. Said list is based on indisputable empirical evidence (in other words, my personal observations):
1. fewer/less – Fewer, which applies where numbers or plurals are involved, is simply not in some people’s vocabularies. Less is used for quantity. You have less money because you have fewer dollars.
2. i.e./e.g. – I.e., which means “that is,” is often mistakenly used in place of e.g., which means “for example.”
3. affect/effect – The first is almost always a verb (“It didn’t affect me”); the second, a noun (“It had no effect on me”).
4. your/you’re – The first is the possessive (“Your hair is beautiful”); the second is the contraction (“You’re beautiful”).
5. their/they’re/there – The mix-up occurs with the first two—the possessive (“Their business is booming”) and the contraction (“They’re doing big business”). There is less troublesome but much more versatile. It can be used as an adverb, adjective, noun, pronoun, or even an interjection. It’s often used to indicate place (“Let’s go there”).
6. it’s/its – This understandably confuses some folks because apostrophes often indicate possessives, but in this case the possessive (“Its branches were bare”) has no apostrophe, while the contraction (“It’s cloudy today”) does.
7. lie, lay – This is another case where one—lie—is rarely used. Lay means to place; lie means to recline. So: “I am going to lie down”; “I will lay the gun down.”
8. alumnus/alumni – Again, the first, which means a male graduate of an educational institution, is rarely used (and never on sports talk radio). Instead, the semi-learned among us go with alumni, which is the plural. If you want to be safe, go with the colloquial “alum.”
9. infer/implyInfer, which means to deduce, conclude or assume, is often used by wannabe sophisticates in place of imply, which means to suggest or hint. Think of them as opposites.
10. A tie: compliment/complement and bring/take. Compliment refers to praise or accolades. Complement means to supplement or accompany, as in a wine that complements an entree. Bring is often used where take is meant. The choice depends on your point of reference. In most cases bring suggests movement toward the speaker (“Bring it to me”) while take suggests movement away from the speaker (“Take it to your brother”).
Next month: the most common redundancies.

Your Assignment, Dear Readers,

. . . should you decide to accept it, is to make note of every time someone utters the words “happy New Years” in your presence. Report back. Extra credit for photos of signs that wish you a “Happy New Year’s” or “New Years.”

It Never Ends

“Couldn’t care less” continues to be misused, even by editorial writers, such as those at the Philadelphia Daily News: “[Politicians] could care less about the hurt it [a spending cut] will cause.” Think about it: that’s the opposite of what the phrase is intended to convey.

Getting Political

The presidential campaign continues to supply us with material. Reader Larry Kerchner says one of the Republicans came up with a Department of Redundancies Dept. candidate by claiming he is going to “unify everything together.”

Fun Fact

According to The New Yorker, octogenarian crooner Pat Boone, an aspiring English teacher at the time, insisted on announcing his first big hit onstage as “Isn’t That a Shame.” (The title was “Ain’t That a Shame.”)

How Long, Oh Lord, How Long?

(In which we record the continuing abuse of that most misused punctuation mark, the apostrophe.)
Citing a new car reliability survey, USA Today’s Chris Woodyard reports, “. . . Fiat, Dodge, Chrysler and Ram finished generally near the bottom of the pack, as brand’s go.”

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Words* of the Month

Pronounced BAY-thas, -thos, it’s a noun meaning an abrupt descent from lofty or sublime to the commonplace; anticlimax

Pronounced ZEN-uh-fyl or ZEE-nuh-fyl, it’s a noun meaning one who is attracted to foreign things or people.

*Several readers noted that we had no Word of the Month in December. So, to make amends, we’re offering a bonus word this month.