A couple weeks ago, I wrote this post on commonly misused words and phrases in English.
You all seemed to dig it, so drawing from the comments and a few other candidates that have surfaced since then, I bring you Part Deux of grammar-ish screw ups (with a lot less Charlie Sheen).
Toe The Line
You don’t tow it (unless you’re Mater).
Toeing the line is about teetering on the edge of that line so closely that you’re near to stepping over it. Sassy people like me toe the line often and nearly get in trouble. But not quite. Mostly.
If you don’t mind my asking…
This one is a bit of an obscure and little-known grammar thing, and one of those rules where — when you use it correctly — people are probably going to think you’re doing it wrong when you’re one of the few who is doing it right.
But the proper way to say a phrase like this with a gerund — that’s a verb ending in -ing — is to use the possessive form of the adjective “my”, rather than saying “If you don’t mind me asking”. Think of it like this: the asking is an action that belongs to you. Another example? “Do you think my speaking at this event would be a good career move?”
It’s a common misuse but not a commonly known rule so I’m chucking it in here as a “well isn’t that nifty”.
Adverse and Averse
If I had a dollar for every time I read this one…
Adverse is an adjective meaning “bad”, like having an adverse reaction to a food or a bee sting, or when referring to adverse weather conditions.
If you’re against doing something or avoid it whenever you can, you’re averse to it. I have an aversion to peas.
If you’re getting closer to a location or an idea or the central point of an argument, you’re homing in on it. The phrase comes from the old use of homing pigeons. The common misuse is to say hone in on something, based on mishearing home as hone when the phrase is spoken aloud.
Hone is a perfectly legitimate word, which means to sharpen (as in a knife edge). But hone in isn’t the correct phrase.
I’ll admit in advance that, like many language usage things, there is some debate over this one. Some say hone in is an appropriate use since it’s become so common.
I realize language evolves, in some cases for good reason (say, we need a word to describe something that hasn’t existed in that context before). But in this case, when there’s a perfectly reasonable and correct alternative that means what you intended in the first place and the misuse is simply due to hearing something incorrectly, why not learn and use the correct phrase? <end curmudgeonly grumbling>
This is the correct word when you mean “regardless of”. Irregardless is not a correct word. By its very nature it is a double negative. The end.
[Ed. - People are passionately arguing with me on this one. Just because it's in the dictionary does not make it correct or good grammar. Just because people use it doesn't mean it's good, either. I edited my statement to say it's not a correct word since, technically, the word exists even if I think it's the sloppiest piece of garbage known to the English language aside from text-speak and I believe you sound silly when you use it. Hate on me all you like.]
See my previous point about accepting incorrect things simply because people persist in using them incorrectly.
Champing at the Bit
Believe it or not, this is the correct phrase, not chomping at the bit. Champing means making loud biting or chewing noises, and of course the bit part is in reference to the bit of rubber or metal that’s in a horses mouth when they have a bridle on. They love to chew at it noisily, thus the origin of the phrase.
There you go. Impress your friends. They’ll think you’re wrong, but that’s ok. You can send them to this post (or Google) and gloat.
When you are anticipating something so much that you’re hardly breathing, you’re waiting with bated breath. The verb abate means to lessen or reduce, which is where this word comes from.
If you wait with baited breath you might need to ditch the herring and grab a toothbrush.
Principal and Principle
Principal means a bunch of different things, but the confusion is usually because the words are pronounced exactly the same way so it’s impossible to tell in spoken language which is being used.
The first use of principal is when it is an adjective meaning first, primary, or main; for example, “the principal reason that I’m concerned with this contract is…”.
As a noun, principal is sometimes used in job titles, as in the “principal architect”. You have a principal of a school. The part of your mortgage that isn’t interest is the principal (i.e. the main part of the loan). The word has several meanings with this spelling, so when in doubt, look it up.
A principle is a noun only and means a rule, doctrine, belief, law, or tenet (which, by the way, is not a tenant. Those live in buildings or dwellings or some kind. Hey! Bonus grammar oopsie.).
Often written incorrectly as sneak peak, this phrase is about getting a special glimpse at something, not a secret mountain summit. Unless you’re climbing a mountain secretly, in which case I guess you could have a sneak peak.
But most often what you mean to write is sneak peek. Don’t let the “ea” part of sneak make you write it twice.
If you are unwilling or reluctant to do something, you are loath to do it. If you also hate it, you might indeed loathe it. But they are definitely different words, and leaving the “e” off of loath is not a mistake!
I loathe doing laundry, but I am loath to let it pile up for weeks since I’ll run out of underwear.
Fewer vs. Less
The simplest way to remember which of these to use: Fewer typically refers to individual, discrete numbers of things that you could count one by one. There are fewer people in that line than this one. (Though that never seems to be the case when I choose a grocery line.)
Less refers to volume, or an amount. There is less water in that glass than there was before. There is less interest in reading newspapers these days.
The possible confusing exception here is around time or money. We usually refer to those as amounts rather than specific numbers, so we have less time and less money than we often wish to.
Please. For the love of all things sacred. The proper preposition here is by. Things happen by accident, not on accident. Please? Thank you.
By popular demand: Affect vs. Effect
In the last post I said I wasn’t going to tackle some of the more commonly addressed errors since they’re in so many places. But several people mentioned and asked about this one, so here goes. This is a confusing one, so it’s no wonder it so often gets mangled.
Most of the time, you can think of affect as a verb and effect as a noun. For example, you affect something (influence it) and end up having an effect (result) on it. You also have personal effects in your briefcase or that you collect when you make bail. The Mythbusters guys are awesome at special effects.
A less common but correct use of affect as a verb is also to put on an exaggerated display. It’s most often heard in phrases like “affecting an air of sophistication”.
The weird ones:
- Effect as a verb meaning “create”, as in “I’m eager to effect change in this organization.” Business gurus, take note.
- Affect as a noun, where the emphasis is on the first syllable (AF-fect). It refers to an emotion or an emotional state. This usage isn’t common unless you’re a scientist or doctor of some kind, but it’s a legitimate use of this word.
I know. It’s confusing. Did I mention English is weird? It is.
You used to be a kid and now you’re an adult. Or most of you are, anyway.
The smooshed-together “d” and “t” between used and to makes this phrase sound like use to. Same goes for supposed to (not suppose to).
Part Deux, Concluded.
So that’s it for this second edition of the commonly misused words and phrases with nary a camouflaged Charlie Sheen in sight.
Oh by the way, no one ever guessed the word that inspired me to use the image from the last blog post. It was “sausage”. Make of that what you will, but anyone that knows me at all knows that it makes perfect sense.
Have more that we haven’t covered? Some that confuse you every time? Leave them in the comments.