Sixteen ways to appear cultivated/educated/literate
without pulling all-nighters...
without pulling all-nighters...
I taught various aspects of Biology at the University of Waterloo for almost 30 years. So I had plenty of time to discover that most of my students were far worse at English than they were at Biology, and I put a rather disproportionate amount of time and energy into teaching them the rudiments of what was in most cases their mother tongue.
When I got them to write an essay in my third or fourth year classes, they always complained that they had never had to do this before. I responded that this had been a bad thing, because if they wanted to make a positive impression in their future jobs they would need to speak and write clearly.
What I am about to impart to you now are some of the fruits of my struggles with undergraduate illiteracy. If you can deal correctly with the things I am about to discuss, your superiors will note this with approbation.
First, the spoken word. The substitution of the ŒF word‚ for virtually all other adjectives and verbs definitely conveys a certain impression (see ŒTrailer Park Boys‚). But most people betray themselves rather more subtly, and the great thing is that this problem can be overcome with relative ease.
(1) If you pronounce the word Œnuclear‚ as Œnucular‚ you are putting yourself in the same category as Dubya Bush, and not many of us would want to do that, would we?
(2) ŒHow are you?‚ ŒGood‚ is a common but incorrect reply. What should you say? ŒWell, thank you.‚ Remember the old saying about the Pilgrim Fathers who Œcame to North America to do good, and stayed to do well‚. Good is an adjective (a word that describes a noun) ŒA good man‚. Well is an adverb (a word that qualifies a verb). ŒHe did well‚. Of course, well has another meaning, as in ŒWell, he was a good man, but he done (did) her wrong‚.
(3) The frequent confusion of Œlie‚ and Œlying‚ with Œlay‚ and Œlaying‚ is unfortunate, since they mean different things. ŒShe was laying on the bed‚ implies egg production, though to say ŒShe lay on the bed‚ (past tense) is just fine, and no form of reproduction is necessarily implied (though the possibilities are clearly endless). The rules here are a little convoluted, and have to be learned by rote, since the structure of the language is not internally consistent or logical. Irregular verbs (lie, be, come, go) are sent to try us. Interestingly, languages other than English also have irregular (inconsistent) verbs, so the mental quirk/gene involved in their invention and adoption must be widespread.
(4) The Œfewer‚ - Œless‚ problem. Here‚s an easy rule: fewer refers to number, less refers to quantity.
ŒThere are fewer (not less) wasps around this year.‚ Most people get the less right for quantity, as in ŒI have less money than I would like‚. But they tend to use Œless‚ where Œfewer‚ would be correct ŒThere are less (fewer) students at the school this year‚.
(5) A good rule is to expunge the word Œlike‚ from your vocabulary. If you can avoid it altogether, despite its being a useful word in some contexts, then it won‚t creep unnoticed into inappropriate places. It‚s, like, a real giveaway. If you like ice cream and want to say so, you can replace the word with a stronger one, such as Œlove‚, Œmust have‚, Œcrave‚, or Œscream for‚.
But most of the gaffes are committed in writing (which is where I encountered them). Some of the words involved are Œhomophones‚: that is, two words which sound the same while being spelled differently.
(6) So if you write ŒThe Principle of my school was a real scumbag‚ you are revealing, not just that you didn‚t like the guy, but that you don‚t know the difference between the wordsprinciple and principal. Of course, in England, where I grew up, we avoided this issue by calling him the Headmaster, as in ŒThe Headmaster of my school was a real (insert desired noun)‚.
(7) If you write ŒShe poured over [studied] the documents for hours‚ you are displaying an unfamiliarity with the word Œpored‚.
(8) The number of people who confuse Œtheir‚ and Œthere‚ is legion (but surely I don‚t have to give examples ...). And there‚s another problem associated with the word Œthere‚. It is frequently added to the beginning of a sentence, where it is completely unnecessary. ŒThere were seventy different species of mushroom found in the woods‚. What‚s wrong with the unadorned ŒSeventy species of mushroom were found in the woods‚?
(9) and (10) Other bad beginnings are: ŒBased on‚ and ŒDue to‚. This is because those two phrases need something in front of them, explaining what is Œbased on‚, and what is Œdue to‚.
ŒOur conclusions were based on a series of experiments‚ is fine.
ŒThe school was closed due to an outbreak of Œflu‚. is OK. (The closure was occasioned by the Œflu).
I personally try to avoid both of these phrases because it is far too easy to misapply them.
Why not ŒHis results were derived from...‚ and ŒThe school was closed because of an outbreak...‚
(11) Here‚s one I read in the paper this morning. ŒAt age 12, the horse she was riding spooked...‚
What that sentence actually says is that the horse was 12. What it was just as clearly meant to say was that the rider was 12. This error is so common as to persuade me that many people never read over what they write in order to check whether they said what they wanted to say, or something else altogether...It‚s called proof-reading, and it‚s perfectly obvious that even the best newspapers don‚t do it any more.
(12) ŒYou and I‚ or ŒYou and me‚. Which is correct? The answer is that both can be correct, in the right place. ŒYou and I‚ belongs at the beginning of a sentence. ŒYou and me‚ belongs further in or at the end. The key is to think about whether ŒI‚ or Œme‚ is appropriate.
Œ[You and] I will go to the movies‚.
ŒIt would be better for [you and] me to go‚
(13) The number of signs that advertise something as happening Œtonite‚ (tonight) is alarming, as is the number touting Œlite‚ (light) beer. This raises a different issue - whether phonetic spelling is a good thing. That`s for another time.
(14) The misuse of the apostrophe is epidemic - far more so than SARS or West Nile will ever be. It‚s is the most abused word in the language. Since it means Œit is‚ or Œit has‚, it is absolutely inappropriate when used in the sentence ŒThe CBC is celebrating it‚s 50th Anniversary.‚ Not that the CBC would ever advertise itself thus (I tell myself).
It‚s my belief that we have lost this one, and that the best thing would be to do away with the apostrophe altogether, leaving the context to make the meaning clear. George Bernard Shaw, who held opinions on many subjects, tended not to use apostrophes in his writings, and I have to say that when I read his plays I have little trouble understanding his meaning. I was not lead astray (sorry, I mean led).
(15) If only people knew where to put the word only. The following three sentences mean very different things.
I only saw her this morning (I didn‚t talk to her).
I saw only her this morning. (I didn‚t see anyone else this morning).
I saw her only this morning. (I saw her very recently).
Think about it. It is clear that where that word goes is crucial, because the entire sense of the sentence rests upon it.
(16) You have to reach a certain level of linguistic skill before you will use the word Œdisinterested‚ in any context, but you should know that it means Œimpartial or unbiased‚ and that it can never be construed to mean Œuninterested.‚, though it is often used as if that was what it meant. This sin is widespread, and causes concern/distress/depression in the ranks of language lovers..
And that's the end of one heavy blog - and not even one picture to lighten it up!