It’s not its, is it? Oh, it is.
Everyone likes to look smart. Particularly in the high tension world of political debate, you never want to look like a dim bulb, even if you must privately admit that you wouldn’t know a Shiite from a Sunni if you tripped over them both in your kitchen. But when it comes to the written word, many traps and pitfalls await the would be analyst. That’s why I would like to take a moment this morning for us to visit with some old friends – the bugaboos of English that torpedo so many of our best efforts at making our point. Keep these in mind going forward and you’ll look much more like a genius, whether you’re penning your own op-ed column, screaming in the comments about my inane political blatherings, or corresponding with Aunt Fanny about how fabulously the corn is growing this year.
Itty Bitty– Perhaps one of the most common mistakes arises in the use of “its” and “it’s” in sentence construction. So much fuss over such a tiny word! While it may seem counter-intuitive, the apostrophe is only used when substituting a contraction for the phrase “it is.” Example: “It’s funny how Barack Obama’s ears stick out like open taxi cab doors.”
The possessive article never uses the apostrophe. To wit: “For a man like Obama, virtue is its own reward.”
You should ensure you have insurance, I assure you – These words get messed up all the time. “Ensure” is interchangeable with “to make sure.” As in, “Bob Barr’s staff must ensure he is on the ballot in as many states as possible.” The word “assure” means to instill confidence in someone. “Bob Barr assured the audience he would work to shrink the size of the Federal government.” The only time you use “insure” is when you are actually speaking of insurance. “Bob Barr insured the package for twice its retail value before mailing it.”
It’s the principle of the thing! – When writing “principle” do you end it in “ple” or “pal” in each instance? Principle denotes a fundamental truth, law or value. “John McCain is a man of great principles.” The other version refers to two main usages. One is the headmaster of a school. “The principal felt that John McCain was a very poor student.” It also refers to the base amount of a loan in financial transactions. “The principal on Hillary Clinton’s campaign debt was staggering, to say nothing of the interest owed!”
If you need a really simple way to remember this one, keep this sentence in mind: “The principal is my pal.” The one referring to a human being ends in “pal.”
Compliments are free, but insults cost money -The pairing of “complimentary” and “complementary” is a more obscure one, but everybody seems to get it wrong. “Complimentary” spelled with an “i” refers to two cases. The first implies flattery, as in paying a compliment to someone. “Barack Obama was very complimentary to everyone he met in a transparent effort to win votes.” The same spelling is used when referring to something that is provided for free. “The lobbyist gave John McCain many complimentary perks during his free junkets around the world.” The only time you use “complementary” with an “e” is to describe associated pairs. “Conservative and Liberal are complementary political ideologies.”
These are only a few of the most common errors we make when writing. Feel free to suggest others in the comments section and I’ll add them in to the column. But for now, take these handy tips with you as you go forth and argue your political views, readers. Good luck!
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UPDATE: Yes, gentle readers, the comments and e-mails have begun, reminding me yet again that one should never write a column on English usage with insuring… errr, assuring… no, wait… ensuring that you are 100% in compliance yourself. Who knew there were so many grammarians lurking out there in the darkness? Other cases have been offered up as well. We’ll need to extend this column after the jump.
English_teacher is absolutely correct in noting:
“Which” is used only when the when the phrase is set off by a comma, and the phrase is descriptive but unnecessary to the sense of the sentence. “That” is used when there is no comma and the limitation that follows is absolutely necessary to the sense of the sentence.
I stand duly chastised and have corrected the offending sentence.
Reader Orbitz_U offers this old chestnut:
Capitol and capital are regularly abused. Capitol refers to a building with lots of congress critters in it, while capital usually denotes either money or upper case letters, among other meanings.
TheGeorg tells us,
Point out “there, their and they’re” since these are some of the worst offenders.
Noted and agreed, my friend. “There” is geographic in nature. “Where’s Obama? Oh, he’s over there with those Weathermen bombers.” “Their” implies ownership. “Where did the McCains get all their money? Something to do with beer, I believe.” Last of all, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are” and nothing more. “What does the future hold for the Clintons now? They’re toast, my brother.”
And yet another from Ms_ChaosNG… “affect” vs. “effect” gets beaten like a red headed step child all over the web.
Another common one: effect vs. affect. I see this one on signs ALL the time. It should be, “When your insurance benefits take effect then that will affect how much you have to pay.” Instead we have all these people lost and confused thinking that they are going to summon their insurance benefits into being instead of losing them because they don’t know how to read fine print.
It’s worth noting, of course, that “effect” is also used as a verb, but in more select circumstances. You can “effect change” to produce a desired “effect” in your life. Writers are cautioned to take care when selecting which one to employ.
Keep ’em coming. Only you can help clean up the litter of the literary landscape!