Tag Archives: confusing words

Affect or Effect?

Which is correct: affect or effect – and how do you know? Today I’m going to try to clear up the mystery – and I’ll also offer some unconventional advice about these two problematic words.

Let’s start with the conventional advice. Most sources say that affect is usually a verb, and effect is usually a noun.

Did you notice that little qualifier – usually? First-year college students see that “usually” and start getting nervous.

I would argue that you don’t have to worry about that usually, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

But first let’s deal with “verb” and “noun.” I find it helpful to remember that affect is an action: they both start with “a.”

Smoking affects your health. CORRECT

The weather forecast affected our vacation plans.  CORRECT

Effect is a noun (thing). Looking for a, an, and the can help you determine whether you’re dealing with a noun:

I’m still feeling the effects of that all-nighter I pulled three days ago.  CORRECT

Weight gain is a side effect of that medication.  CORRECT

OK! Let’s move on to the next concept. I have always told (and will continue to tell!) writers to avoid affect. Here’s why: it’s vague.

My new job affected my relationship with Dave.  VAGUE

Did your relationship get better or worse? “Affected” isn’t any help here. When I was teaching first-year college students, I always circled “affected” and insisted that students change it to a more specific word (harmed, improved, weakened, strengthened, etc.) Here’s what I would get:

My new job altered my relationship with Dave.  VAGUE

Sigh.

But there’s good news too. If you really think about what you’re trying to say, and you try hard to come up with a strong word, you’re less likely to get trapped by the affect-or-effect confusion.

And that takes us back to something I said earlier: affect is usually a verb, and effect is usually a noun. So how do you know when things get switched around, so that affect is a noun and effect is a verb?

Here’s the likely answer: when you’re a published, professional writer. To put it differently: those alternative usages are so uncommon that you don’t have to think about them for ordinary writing tasks. (Look me up when you get your doctorate in psychology, and we’ll talk more.)

Here’s what I mean. Psychologists sometimes use affect as a noun in professional articles and books:

One sign of successful therapy is more appropriate manifestations of affect.  CORRECT

Effect can be used as a verb to mean “bring about”:

The committee is working hard to effect better relationships between departments.  CORRECT

The advertising program effected an increase in enrollment.  CORRECT

So – what’s the takeaway for a confused writer? Here are some tips:

  • substitute a more specific word for affect whenever you can
  • use a, an, and the to help you decide when to use effect
  • use a print or online dictionary as a backup when you’re unsure about affect/effect (or any word usage issue)

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Fun with Words

Today I’m going to talk about “mismatched” words – words that sound (to some people, anyway) as if they should mean something different from their actual dictionary definitions.

I’m going to start with two words that cause problems for me, and then I’ll go on to a few words that have befuddled people I know.

  1. Pusillanimous
    I always have to look this one up. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that such a long and fancy word means “cowardly” or “timid.”
  2. Nonplussed
    It would help if I knew the meaning of plussed – but there’s no such word, so I’m out of luck. Nonplussed means “surprised” or “unsure.” Lately it’s been taking on the opposite meaning because so many people are as confused as I’ve been. This is a good word to avoid!

Now we’ll go on to words that have created problems for some of my friends:

  1. Penultimate
    One of my friends used to think that penultimate was an emphatic form of ultimate (sort of like “most” and “utmost”). He would talk about the “penultimate outrage,” for example. But the dictionary meaning of penultimate is “second-to-the-last”: “Our song is the penultimate number in the show.”
  2. Strait
    If you think of the Straits of Gibraltar, you’ll find it easy to remember that strait means “narrow” – not “straight”! A straitjacket is a restraint that wraps tightly around a mental patient. A straitlaced person is someone who’s narrow-minded and inflexible.
  3. Notoriety
    Many people confuse notoriety with “noted” and “noteworthy.” But notoriety is actually associated with bad or criminal behavior.

Can you think of any words that seem mismatched? 

Straits of Gibraltar

                                 Straits of Gibraltar

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Blond or Blonde?

No, this isn’t going to be about the Bob Dylan recording (fans out there know that Blonde on Blonde is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time).

But let’s talk about the title for a moment. If you look it up on Wikipedia, it’s spelled Blond on Blonde (unless someone has corrected it by now). So what about that final e? Does it mean anything? Does it make a difference?

Blond or blonde?

Go to www.Dictionary.com, and you’ll discover that the adjective is correctly spelled without the e: Although my hair was blond when I was little, it’s light brown now.

But if you’re referring to a woman with blond hair, you’re supposed to add the e:

Q: Why are dumb blonde jokes so short? A: So brunettes can remember them.

(I couldn’t resist. Incidentally, I’m a blonde.)

The blonde/blond distinction is a subtle one, and Dictionary.com notes that even some good writers ignore it.

Here’s a thought, however: Once in a while you’re going to encounter a language fanatic (like me) who knows the difference and looks for that final e. Why not take the opportunity to impress me?

 

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Subject-Verb Agreement Isn’t Always Easy

The editor in my brain is always on duty. So I paid attention when a red light flashed in my head after I’d read this claim in a private school ad in the New York Times Magazine:

A boarding arts high school, where the best in academic and arts education go hand-in-hand.

Did you spot the mistake? I don’t mean the sentence fragment – that’s OK in an ad, especially if it’s acting as a headline or attention-getter.

The problem is subject-verb agreement. (Click here and read Rule 4). The subject is “best,” so the verb should be “goes”:

A boarding arts high school, where the best in academic and arts education goes hand-in-hand.  CORRECT

But that “hand-in-hand” creates a new problem. First, the sentence sounds wrong. You’re expecting go, not goes (unless you’re an English teacher.) More seriously, the new sentence doesn’t make sense. How can one thing (best) go hand-in-hand? It’s nonsensical.

Sentences like these are the reason my husband sometimes catches me staring blankly at the computer screen. I know what I want to say, but this @#$%&! English language won’t let me say it.

I have no idea how you could fix that sentence about the boarding arts high school. Does that mean that my Ph.D. in English is going to be revoked?

What you’d have to do is figure out how to make “best” plural: best experiences, best instructors, best resources…something like that.

Gee whiz, though…if you’re running an expensive private school, please get the grammar right. Or do what I always do: Throw out the sentence and start over.

 

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Less or Fewer?

I usually shop at Publix, a grocery chain located here in the Southeast. Their customer service is outstanding – why go anywhere else?

But I also appreciate their commitment to good writing. For a long time their stores featured a sign that proclaimed, “We will never, knowingly, disappoint you.” Good sentence: I approve.

But at some point (and I think this was a good decision) the commas around “knowingly” disappeared. Now the sentence flows without interruption: “We will never knowingly disappoint you.”

Where I really see the commitment to good English is at the express line, which proclaims that it’s for customers with “10 or fewer items.” A lesser grocery chain (ha!) would have said “less than 10 items.”

How do you know which is correct – less or fewer?

Here’s the rule: Use “fewer” for things you can count; use “less” for things you can’t count. So it would be less coffee but fewer cups of coffee. You can’t count coffee, but you can count cups.

“Less” and “fewer” cause a great deal of confusion, and I congratulate Publix for getting “fewer” right. So many people don’t. And here, perversely, is what I’ve been hearing more and more often lately: “Fewer than one.” Nope. “Less than one.” So you would say, “There’s less than one day to shop for my brother’s wedding.”

But now it’s time for me to go to Publix to salute that sign over the express line.

Publix Wikipedia ok

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Coprolaliac?

This week my husband and I took Amtrak to Jupiter, Florida, where we spent two days fishing (and releasing our catch) with a guide. I had bought a Sony Pocket Reader expressly for trips like this one. It’s a lightweight electronic reading device, similar to a Kindle, that can hold plenty of books, saving space and weight in my suitcase.

Turns out I should have saved some of that space for an unabridged dictionary. One of the books I loaded onto my Pocket Reader was an anthology of writings by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist whose articles and books I’ve always enjoyed. In a reminiscence about a patient who’d had sleeping sickness, I came across these three words: oculogyria, palilalic, and coprolalic.

I copied them so that I could look them up at www.Dictionary.com when I returned. “Oculogyria,” it turns out, means “The limits of rotation of the eyeballs.” (There’s a handy word!) “Palilalic” wasn’t listed at all (a Google search shows that it refers to a speech defect in which words are unnecessarily repeated). The last word on my list, “coprolalic,” was misspelled: Dictionary.com listed it as “coprolaliac” and gave the meaning as “scatalogical” (an adjective referring to bathroom humor).

Bad writing. I get the feeling that Sacks, a medical doctor, was showing off, or too lazy to try to make himself clear – or simply didn’t care whether his readers understood him or not. Even worse, his editor didn’t bother to challenge him about those three words.

I came across a similar problem in an article I edited about six months ago: The author had used the word “paremiological,” which again isn’t listed at Dictionary.com. A Google search finally unearthed the meaning. (It’s an adjective referring to proverbs.)

There’s a simple principle that all writers should follow: Make yourself clear.

Which isn’t the same as making yourself sound simpleminded and boring – a false choice that many writers talk themselves into.

In fact I think you could argue that clarity and sophistication should always go together in professional writing. The trick is making yourself understood without regressing into choppy little sentences and oversimplified word choices.

You could go a step further and say that there’s a huge philosophical issue here. Very few ideas are new. How do you make them interesting and fresh?

If this question interests you (and it should), you’re in good company – and I’m not just talking about writers.  Suzanne Farrell, the great ballerina from the New York City Ballet, said that her greatest challenge was to make the steps interesting. I’m a dancer myself (ballroom, not ballet), and I know what Farrell was talking about.

But our subject is writing. So how do you make sentences interesting when you’re using a language that’s over a thousand years old? Here are some suggestions:

1.  Go ahead and use unfamiliar words, but be careful to define them in the context. Oliver Sacks could have said, “She improvised a variety of coprolaliac limericks that astonished me. Where had this prim woman acquired a gift for bathroom humor?”

2.  Use a semicolon now and then. It makes you look brilliant, but it’s no harder to understand than a sentence ending with a period (which is pretty much what a semicolon sentence is). I love semicolons; they add elegance to my writing.

3.  Use embedded clauses, as I’m doing here, to combine two ideas. Embedded clauses, when used effectively, work much better than sentences strung together with “and.”

4.  Put yourself on a reading program. It’s a great way to absorb sentence patterns; you’ll soon notice the difference in your writing. Thanks to Bartleby.com, which is just a few clicks away, we have instant access to countless great writers.

5.  Most important, don’t be fooled into thinking that big words are going to impress readers. It’s foolish to write gloriously coprolaliac limericks – or anything else – if nobody understands what you’re trying to say.

Oliver Sacks Wikipedia 2

Oliver Sacks

 

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Snuck or Sneaked?

Which is correct – snuck or sneaked? That choice – once firmly settled in favor of sneaked – is once again up for grabs.

I just finished reading a fascinating book about polygamy: Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall (ghost-written by Lisa Pulitzer). Wall was married, against her will, at the age of fourteen at the command of Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed “prophet” of the polygamous FLDS sect (now serving multiple sentences for forcing underage marriages and other crimes).

The book is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at life in a polygamous community. It veers back-and-forth between normalcy (school, friends, family celebrations) and shock (the types of control inflicted on members of the sect). I thought that Lisa Pulitzer did an excellent job of turning Elissa Wall’s  harrowing story into a book.

But then there’s snuck, which showed up in the book multiple times. Language experts call it “an informal variant” of sneaked (which is preferred in formal writing). You could argue that an uneducated girl like Elissa Wall would naturally use snuck (the sect did not permit her to finish high school). Valid argument. But all the other writing is formal, right down to lots of semicolons and conjunctive adverbs. All those snucks seemed jarring and out of place.

When to use snuck? It’s one of those unsolvable problems (like why the Mona Lisa is smiling).  I view it as a jokey, informal word, a step or two above ain’t (a word I use myself when I’m kidding around). Garrison Keillor uses snuck in his Lake Woebegone stories.

But in a serious book like Elissa Wall’s I would have used sneaked (unless I was writing dialogue, where snuck would help make the conversation sound natural and real. Hard to do, by the way).

In 50 years snuck will probably have become an accepted alternative to sneaked. Right now, though, we’re in transition time. I would (and will) stick to sneaked.

It’s common to view this kind of evolution as an example of the deterioration of our language. Nonsense. It’s a natural process, and we’re not losing anything. In the meantime, however, we need to be careful.

Good writers are very sensitive to these time-will-tell issues. If you’re too slow to adopt a change, you sound stodgy and old-fashioned. If you’re slightly ahead of the pack, you risk sounding careless. And so we tap-dance through the dictionary, hoping we’re making the right choices. It’s part of the fascination of language.

Stolen Innocence

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Impacted

I just saw this headline in thenewspaper: La. Gov. Jindal says more than 65 miles of shoreline has been impacted.

Writing that sentence would be grounds for divorce in our house: Charlie and I have pledged never to put -ed on “impact” unless we’re referring to a tooth.

I hate “impacted.” Why not say “affected,” which sounds much more normal? (Actually there’s a good reason not to write “affected” either, but I’ll get to that later.)

There’s a delightful moment in one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories when Wolfe silently adds $100 to a bill because the client used the word “contact” as a verb. I’m not that picky (to tell you the truth, I use “contact” as a verb myself), but I applaud Wolfe’s (and Stout’s) passion for language.

As I said, “impacted” is grounds for divorce in our household. I always get rid of it when I’m editing, and of course I don’t use it myself (why wreck a perfectly good marriage?). But the American Heritage Dictionary reports that “impacted” is gradually becoming accepted (although 85% of the panel in its 2001 survey disapproved of it). Language marches on, and change is inevitable. (In case you’re wondering, 65% of the panel accepted “contact” as a verb.)

The annoying truth is that 50 or 100 years from now, all the setting-my-teeth-on-edge things I hate in the English language will probably become standard. Everyone will put the -ed on “impact” and write “all right” as one word, as the British do. (Yesterday a former student sent me an email with all right written as one word, testimony to my lack of success as an English professor.)

Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe lost the battle against contact as a verb, and I know that my campaigns against “impacted” and “alright” are hopeless causes.

I’ve already lost the battle against “affected” (in the sense of “changed” or – grrrrrrr – “impacted”). Hear me out, though. I think there’s an important point to be made.

Language is supposed to be powerful. “Affected”  is meaningless. Suppose you said that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” affected your mood. What does that tell me? Answer: Nothing. Did it make you feel mellow? Bore you because you’ve heard it so often? Make you envy the pianist who was performing?

I always circle “affected” on students’ papers and ask them to substitute a more specific word. What they all do, of course, is go to an online thesaurus and come back with “altered” or “changed.” Sigh.

I like to think that I’ve impacted the students who’ve attended my classes, but evidence suggests otherwise. (Is that the rustle of divorce papers I’m hearing?)

Wolfe-Over-My-Dead-Body 2

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Flaunt or Flout?

Flaunt or flout? In today’s sports section I read an Associated Press story about a former boxing champion who “flouted a tattoo of President Hugo Chavez on his chest.”

I’m startled that the AP writer didn’t know that the correct word is “flaunted,” not “flouted.” He should have written that the boxer flaunted the tattoo. “Flout” usually means disregard a rule or law. “Flaunt” usually means display boldly.

Flaunt and flout are similar enough to create confusion–so wouldn’t you double-check before you used them?

Speaking of confusion, here’s a potential problem that my husband spotted in one of the gardening columns he was writing for our newspaper. He listed three winter annuals as Shasta daisy, snapdragon, and petunia. Then he realized that a novice gardener might think he meant Shasta daisy, Shasta snapdragon, and Shasta petunia. So he rewrote the sentence with Shasta daisy at the back: snapdragon, petunia, and Shasta daisy. Problem solved.

The thinking process he used makes an important point about writing. People overestimate, in my opinion, the importance of formal grammar. They assume that if you know the parts of speech and can diagram sentences, you’ll be a good writer. But formal grammar wouldn’t have helped my husband with that sentence.

What he needed to do instead was to read the sentence while pretending to be a reader who knows nothing about gardening in Florida. It’s not easy to set aside everything you know, take on a different persona, and analyze a sentence from another point of view. That kind of thinking requires an almost Zen-like emptiness of mind. Schools don’t generally teach student writers to think that way, but they should. Every good writer does that all the time.

Hugo Chavez

                     Hugo Chavez

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