Thursday, February 05, 2009

Grammatical Goof-ups

Vicki and I are planning our book tour with excitement and some anxiety, as we are going to be doing a number of workshops and presentations. It will be fun, but in the planning, I worry about getting it wrong. Whatever IT is. So I decided to revisit all the grammatical goof-ups I’ve either made or could easily make. As you probably know by now, I get these from Patricia T. O’Connor’s Woe is I. Every time I open this book, I grin. I also learn something.

For example, I began to write something like, “Hopefully, my ignorance will entertain you.” Wrong. Hopefully is an adverb. (Duh, I knew that.) I can say, “I hope my ignorance will entertain you,” or, “I say hopefully that my ignorance will entertain you.” Which sounds a little stuffy, and calls for some work. But the first sentence is incorrect.

Here are some good words, often misused or misunderstood:

Did you know that decimate means literally “to kill every tenth one?” O’Connor warns us not to use decimate to mean “to destroy entirely,” and to never use it with a numerical figure, as in “the hurricane decimated sixty per cent of New Orleans.” I made that up, by the way. How much of New Orleans did the hurricane destroy?

Diseases are diagnosed, not people. So don’t say, “My neighbor was diagnosed with pneumonia.” Instead, “My neighbor’s cough was diagnosed as pneumonia.”

I always thought the word fortuitous had an element of luck attached to it. Wrong. The word means accidental or by chance. That’s all.

Here’s another one I’m sure I’ve messed up, except I may have been rescued by the fact that the word is a touch out of style. Fulsome means overdone or disgustingly excessive. And I thought it was a flattering term. Hope I never said it to one of my English teachers.

Effete means barren, used up, or worn out. It has nothing to do with men in velvet smoking jackets.

Here’s a really good one, because it’s practical, and I'm sure I've misused it. Enormity is not to be confused with enormousness, which describes a large size. Enormity refers to something hugely wicked, monstrous, or outrageous. Southern California was shocked by the enormity of Charles Manson’s crimes.

Did you know that the word dilemma involves two choices, both of them bad? Its specificity surprised me.

The movie was enervating. No, that doesn't mean it was exciting. On the contrary, it probably bored the crap out of the audience. Enervating means draining of energy. Yawn.

Wow, I didn’t know this—noisome means evil-smelling or offensive. It has nothing to do with noise. It does have to do with the word annoy, though.

Restive means unruly or stubborn, not impatient or fidgety. Restive and restless are not synonyms.

Did you know the difference between aggravate and irritate? I didn’t until I read this. Aggravate means to make worse; irritate means to inflame. O’Connor points out that aggravate does not mean to vex or annoy. Here’s why I love her explanations—she finds this irritating.

I hope you’ve learned something, and had occasion to smile in the process. I certainly did.

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