Sunday, October 22, 2006

I Can Help With Some Commonly Confused Words

Some of you know me from my long boring or short stupid posts at www.ThinkProgress.org (thanks for stopping by). I see a lot of people posting comments (there and in the other big blogs, not this one) and they’re using the wrong words, especially where apostrophes are concerned. I'm not going to name any names, and if you recognize yourself in here, please don't take offense. Instead, take it as constructive criticism. I see earnest efforts at erudition erode to entropy, eventually ending erroneously. (I'm sorry, I just couldn't shake that sentence out of my head, but as the song goes, "That's What Blogs Are For".) So, to help you out, here are some tips.

Here's one I've made myself and, to be honest, I'm a little embarrassed by it, because I was passionate about what I was saying on the matter. It's "habeas corpus", not "habeus corpus". I am guilty as charged. I should have known better, but I saw it spelled the wrong way in another post and I, being the silly person I am (and lapsed member of MENSA), copied it the way I saw it. In fairness, the person I copied probably did the same thing. We can blame ourselves collectively or we could find the guy that started it and beat the shit out of him.

"Lose" and "Loose"
"Lose" is the opposite of "win". "Loose" is the opposite of "tight". I can't count how many times I've seen people write about "loosing" this election coming up. If it helps to remember, a "loss" (one "o") is what happens when you "lose" (one "o"). And "loose" (double "o") rhymes with "noose", which I’m sure a lot of you have been thinking about as Election Day approaches, which might explain some of the confusion. I can understand that.

Now, contractions and possessives give a lot of people trouble because they both involve the mysterious apostrophe, strange foreign cousin of the quotation mark. Everybody knows the quotation mark and what it means. You are quoting someone. But that half-pint of a quote mark, the ay-post-tro-fee, is just some weird thing that some people seem to like to use more than others, though no one seems to know when to use it and when not to. Well, I'm no expert on the subject, and I can't give you a complete list of dos and don'ts. But I can help you remember how to use a few examples correctly whether you're posting in a blog or writing an angry manifesto about why you blow people up. (I'm looking at you here, Ted.)

"You're" and "Your"
"You're" is a contraction of the two words "you are", while "your" is the possessive form of "you". A good trick, and one that works with the other contractions I discuss below, to figure out whether or not to use the one with the apostrophe is to use the two words "you are". If your sentence makes sense this way, then it's okay to use "you're". If not, then you probably want to use "your". For example, would "If you are sentence makes sense..." make sense? That's how I knew I should use the word "your" before.

"They're", "Their", and "There"
The first thing to remember is that all three start with the letters "t-h-e". I see a lot of people misspell "their" as “thier”, but just remember that they all start out with THE same letters. "They're" (Moe) is a contraction of the words "they are". "Their" (Larry) is the possessive form of "they". And "there" (Curly) is the other one that you use when the other two don't fit. Just as when you need to decide between "your" and "you're", the same test works with "they're". Just stop and ask if the sentence makes sense if you use the two words "they are". Use "their" when you’re referring to something that belongs to or is characteristic of "them". And if those two don’t fit, then use "there". The Republicans think that their strategy will win this year, but they're in for a big surprise when we all vote them out of there.

"We're" and "were"
Just apply the same rules as for "they're" and "there". We're convinced they knew all along there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and lied to us to get us to support their illegal war.

"It's" and "Its"
This one turns out to be easier to get right than you might think. Like the others, "it's" is a contraction for "it is". The two-word substitution test should help here, too. Also, remember that "it" is a neutral gender term. To figure out if you should use "it's" or "its" when using the possessive case, pretend you're talking about a man or woman, instead of a thing. Whenever it would be correct to use "his" or "hers" (no apostrophe in either one), that's when you would use "its" (the other one without an apostrophe.) Ironically, "his", "hers", "its", "theirs", and "ours" are the only possessive forms that don't use the apostrophe, as best I can recall. English majors please correct me. And plurals! Don’t get me started on plurals. Plurals almost never use an apostrophe, so don’t automatically add “’s” when you pluralize a word. But that’s content for another post, as my great grandfather used to say (though it’s possible he was referring to something else.)

"Here" and "Hear"
You "hear" things with your "ear", so if you're talking about being "heard", then you want "hear". If you're talking about anything else, you probably want "here".

Funny story. Jane and I were discussing whether the proper use for the expression is “Hear! Hear!” or “Here! Here!”. While trying to look this up in the dictionary (which I HIGHLY recommend as a reference source not only for proper grammatical usage, but for historical information as well), I found this under at the bottom of the word "here" (keep in mind that as I read it out loud, without having read it first myself, neither of us could quite follow what they were talking about until they got to the example):

"-Usage. It is generally considered nonstandard to place HERE, for emphasis, in an adjectival position between a demonstrative adjective and a noun, as in This here book is the one you're looking for.

Three things: First, our confusion in part was because this wasn't sounding like it was going to clarify our question, but that sentence was designed to be confusing. Second, Jane was right and that “hear” can also mean, “Chiefly Brit., to applaud or endorse a speaker (usually used imperatively in the phrase Hear! Hear!)”. She’s so smart! Third, note the correct usage of the word "you're".

I hope this little guide helps. As a last piece if advice, let me quote one of the bumper stickers on my car: "READ A FUCKING BOOK"

1 comment:

Exley said...

It's "habeas corpus", not "habeus corpus".

THANK YOU, Wayne! It has been driving me crazy whenever I saw that on ThinkProgress, especially from one particular poster over there who fancies himself some type of super-attorney, but who consistently gets his legal facts and terminology wrong.