Thursday, March 27, 2008

Words that can make you look great (or stupid)

I love getting caught up in the creation of a hair-raising scene or an exciting plot twist. But a couple of hours later, I reread and despair. My stuff can suck! I'm wordy; I've got misspellings, repetition, and clunky sentences. I get words confused with others! So I thought I'd share--gulp--some of my discoveries/mistakes.

Most of these rules come from my favorite reference book, Patricia T. O’Connor’s Woe is I. Some were verified by the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (another favorite).

How often have you read a sentence similar to this, “He was reticent to descend into the dark basement.”? Oops--reticent is NOT a synonym for hesitant. It means quiet, shy, or reserved.

I’ve heard people rant about the sick words, nauseous and nauseated. And sure enough, I’ve misused them. Nauseous and nauseated is the difference between sickening and sick. Debby was nauseated by the nauseous paragraph she'd just finished typing. Nauseous and nauseating are synonyms.

Here are some other mistakes I’ve probably made:

Among, amid, and between: Between refers to two. Among is used to refer to three or more individuals. Amid is used when the reference is to a quantity of something you don’t think of as individual items. He got lost amid the trees. And amidst is a no-no altogether—put that out of your mind.

Lie and lay. To lay is to place something. She lay the book on the table. Yesterday, she laid the book on the table, and she has laid the book on the same table for the past week. To lie is to recline. Betty is going to lie down for a nap. Yesterday, she lay down for a nap. And she has lain down for a nap every day for the last week. No wonder this gets confusing.

Less and fewer. Fewer refers to a smaller number of individual things. Less is a smaller quantity of something. The less money he makes, the fewer dollars he spends. Yikes, I still wonder if I get this one!

Farther and further. Farther refers to physical distance. Further is more abstract, usually indicating a greater extent or degree. Alice was exhausted. She could walk no farther, and she would discuss it no further. Okay, I can get my head around this concept.

E.g. and i.e. E.g. is short for exempli gratia, which means “for example.” I.e. is short for id est, and means “that is.” Both e.g. and i.e. must have commas before and after.

Discomfit/discomfort: Discomfit means defeat, rout, or overthrow, though this word isn’t used as much as it used to be. Discomfort means pain, uneasiness or dissatisfaction.

Disinterested and uninterested are not the same thing. Disinterested means impartial or neutral; uninterested means bored or lacking interest. A good courtroom judge is disinterested, but not uninterested.

Each other/one another. each other is for two, whereas one another is from three or more.

Bad/badly. This one is messed up all the time. Use badly to describe an activity, but use bad to describe a condition. For example, Susan swam badly at the meet. Afterwards, she looked bad. I felt bad when he didn’t make it to the party, and the party went badly without him.. If you’re still not sure, O’Connor recommends substituting a less confusing adverb to test the sentence. Good and well work: Susan swam well at the meet; afterward, she looked good.

This is barely scratching the surface. So if you see mistakes in my work, be nice when you tell me, okay? Please don't post it on Amazon.


Rick Blechta said...

The difference between less and fewer is the mess-up that most gets my goat. It is used poorly all over the media. Whenever they say something like, "Less people came to the event this year," I have visions of a roomful of midgets.

Some more, please!

Anonymous said...

I also have Woe is I. So named, because Woe is Me is incorrect. I is the subject of the verb 'is', me is an object. Like this sentence: He liked icecream better than ... (me or I). To figure out which is correct, complete the sentence. He liked icecream better than I like icecream OR He liked icecream better than he liked me.

NL Gassert said...

I am proud to say I totally get the difference between farther and further and have no problem with e.g. and i.e. I guess I’m weird. LOL. I almost have a good handle on lie and lay, but mostly I try to avoid the issue by using different verbs. I’m glad someone finally explained nauseous and nauseated, because I had no clue.

The maddening thing is, I will use the words in their correct form in my draft, then start doubting myself during revisions. By the time the manuscript comes back from the editor I am so confused I just want to “replace all.”

And I love "Woe is I."