It’s been said that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn to speak and even harder to learn to write and spell. With such words to choose among as famous/infamous, bear/bare, and their/they’re/there, I can understand why. As a freelance editor and writing mentor, I see some doozies, but at least I can edit those. What really drives me crazy are those I read in already-published books, stories and newspapers. Seems those respective editors need editors themselves …
Let’s get a jump, then, on the seemingly-clueless editors and, at the same time, impress prospective readers, agents and the editors who do have a clue and who will read your submitted works. What follows is a small sampling of the myriad word mangles I’ve come across recently, in print and in conversation.
Famous/Infamous: If a person, place or thing is well-known s/he/it is famous. If said person, place or thing is known for something(s) that goes against (shall we say) the common good, then s/he/it is infamous. Example: Golf phenom Tiger Woods is arguably among the most famous people in the world. I think it’s fair to say, given his fall from grace last year, that his … um … antics can be described as infamous. (Which then begs the question: is he now infamously famous or famously infamous? I’m not sure I can wrap my brain around that one!)
Plutonic/Platonic: This one came up in conversation a while ago when someone told me a relationship he was in was Plutonic. Though I realize some relationships can seem like they’re in orbit or cause one to feel at one among the stars, relationships are Platonic only.
It’s/Its: The apostrophe belongs only in the contraction for ‘it is.’ Learning which is which will be worth its weight in gold, though it’s (it is) often hard to tell the difference.
Your/You’re: Similarly the apostrophe belongs only for the contraction of ‘you are.’ You’re (you are) bound to come across these in your work all the time, so it’s important to get them right!
Their/There/They’re: This set of words causes problems for folks who are familiar with the English language and its whims of spelling and syntax, fully as much as for those who are unfamiliar with all the intricacies. Unfortunately there’s no little trick to help remember the differences, except with the apostrophe and the contraction. Those folks are going to have trouble with their writing or when they’re (they are) talking with folks over there unless they memorize this one.
Between/Among: The general rule is that ‘between’ is for two people, places or things; ‘among’ is for three or more. Between you and me*, I love to walk among the trees in the woods.
Bare/Bear: My orbitally-challenged friend gets this one wrong all the time, too. One bears a lot of responsibility when one bares one’s soul. The ground is bare even as it bears the weight of the winter cold.
Fulsome: If you receive fulsome praise, you are right to feel blue – or at least to wonder about the source. Though the word is often used to mean a good thing, it’s not. According to the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, ‘fulsome’ is defined as “disgusting by excess of flattery, servility, or expressions of flattery; cloying … In fulsome praise, fulsome means ‘excessive,’ not ‘generous.’” In his book Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art (which I mentioned in a previous column), James J. Kilpatrick takes on the venerable Oxford, though – at least a little bit. Noting that it is not the “friendly” word he once thought it was, Kilpatrick maintains that “Fulsome does not mean abundant, or copious, or florid, or excessive (my emphasis). Its primary meaning is insincere, phony, offensively effusive …”.
Finally, while we still have ol’ Jack here, this is what he thinks of the word ‘irregardless:’ “Take my word for it: There is no such word. Yes, it is in the dictionaries, but there is no such word.” I will humbly submit, in agreement, that this no-such-word is the equivalent of a double negative and is, therefore, superfluous. Regardless of what the dictionaries say. Why add an extra syllable when it’s not needed and it negates itself?
As writers we’ve played and worked with words all our lives. We’ve arranged them, rearranged them, and sometimes rearranged them yet again … and again. Though we’ve learned some tricks along the way, there are some things we just have to memorize for correct usages. The more attention we pay to these seemingly small pieces in our wordplay, the fewer blue pencils are needed, and that’s always a good thing.
When in doubt, consult your faithful grammar or style books. Remember, too, that the green and red lines in word processing programs aren’t always correct. Neither, apparently, are dictionaries!
*Note: This is correct. It is not – I repeat, NOT – ‘between you and I.’ See that discussion in the ‘Me, Myself, and I’ page above.
© ERR 3/10