Sorry, No, That’s Not What You Mean At All

Your Highness:

I’m not much of a writer but, like so many of your loyal subjects, I have a job that often requires me to write. I want to be professional—and avoid embarrassing mistakes. I need an on-call editor. Or at least a cheat sheet. Please help!

My dear Subject,

Ah, English! Constantly changing, constantly evolving—an exemplary living language. On occasion it can indeed be overwhelming, though a brief stroll through my gardens with a copy of the OED always reinvigorates my enthusiasm (and the ingenious little cart my footmen have devised offers a much smoother reading experience than previous; it was surely quite challenging for them to hold the pages in place without it).

But fear not, my dear; I do, as they say in the colonies, feel your pain. And the simple fact that a language is alive does not, I assure you, give one license to go around trampling on its rules and customs without good reason. For yes, the current moment, like all times, is host to a number of coinages that are just wrong—words and phrases whose use marks one as the sort of person who wipes her fingers on the tapestries.

And why are they wrong? “Ah,” I hear my detractors muttering, “but she just gave a very elegant nod to the flexibility of the language!” Yes, yes, all that is still true. But changes that add nothing new—that in fact take away important distinctions from our wonderful language—should be called out and expunged from use.

And so I offer you, as you so amusingly put it, a “cheat sheet” comprising a dozen of today’s most blatant offenders. Conquer these in your writing and you’ll be well on your way to marking yourself as a communicator of distinction.

accept/except. Philomena was honored to accept the award for Most Charming Use of Heritage Silver in a Holiday Centerpiece. Everyone in Knightsbridge approved—except Tristram, who knew two secrets: it wasn’t silver, and it was his handiwork.

affect/effect. The first is most often a verb, the second a noun. While surprises affect each of us in different ways, it was generally agreed that Sebastian’s pet weasels had a chilling effect on the Christmas pageant. (Note that when used in a psychological context, affect is a noun meaning “outward display of mental state”: Though Philomena survived both the centerpiece episode and the weasel in her handbag, her affect became a bit flighty.)

alot. This is not a word. You probably mean a lot, or many. Or perhaps the less common allot, “to assign a share or portion.” Margaret allotted much of her energy to helping others. For example, she gave a lot of thought to improving the dress sense of everyone from the chambermaid to the neighbors.

alright. Again, not a word. Surely you mean all right.

assure/insure/ensure. I assure you that we have insured every item of value on the estate. We also ensure your safety here, despite what you may have heard about last week’s antics with the Macedonian croquet team.

e.g./i.e. A common point of confusion: e.g. is an abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia, “for example,” while i.e. is short for id est, “that is.” Emmeline had eccentric tastes (e.g., jewel-encrusted pillbox hats in the daytime), but she was otherwise less than interesting—i.e., she bored the pants off everyone in the village. (Note, please, the periods and the use of the following comma.)

everyday. This is indeed a word, and it means “ordinary”—perhaps not what the copywriter intended when he or she encouraged purchasers to “use everyday!” Lord Halliday’s everyday waistcoat featured several spots of what one might guess to be Dijon mustard—a sign that wearing it every day without a break for washing was not the best idea.

literally. Something that literally happened actually happened. Otherwise, what you’re saying is figurative, not literal. This one has been around for a very long time; James Joyce’s 1914 story “The Dead” begins, Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet—the author’s gentle joke on Lily, who retains her actual feet throughout the story.

orientated. I’m reasonably sure you mean oriented.

rein/reign. Perhaps, reflected Rupert, giving the children free rein in their choice of activities was not the best idea; it was only noon and they had already filled the swimming pool with washing-up liquid and gelatin. Ah, but they did so reign over his heart!

your/you’re. Contractions do bedevil so many writers: you’re is a contraction of “you are,” while your is possessive (belonging to you). Surely, Alistair, you’re not about to regale us yet again with tales of your adventures in the Crimea?

I could care less. Then perhaps you should. If you care very, very little, then you couldn’t care less.

I hope, my dear subject, that this list has been enlightening. For more helpful distinctions, peruse this excellent list of frequently misused words, or ask your butler or other factotum to procure a copy of Patricia T. O’Conner’s excellent and accessible book Woe is I.

Yours precisely,

The Grammar Queen

By Lisa Stonestreet