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Common Errors in English

English Errors, Business Writing Training

The Sounds of Stupid: Avoiding Mistakes

“Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk to you again . . . .” Come on. Admit it. You’ve sung along, but have you ever really thought about the title and lyrics of this well-known tune? Who is this speaker? What’s so friendly about the darkness? Let’s see: here’s a guy, in the dark, talking to an abstract noun while standing under a street light on a city sidewalk. Imaginative? Uh-huh. Poetic? Maybe. Psychotic? Youbetcha! Did anyone notice that “friend” and “again” don’t even rhyme?

Okay, okay. I know I’m being picky, but there’s a point to all this. Creative writers can play fast and loose with the rules of English usage because they have something called poetic license. No, you can’t apply for one or buy one. You can only get one by doing lots and lots of writing, getting lots and lots of rejection slips, writing lots and lots more, and finally having someone who counts say, “Hey, this isn’t bad. Let’s publish it.”

So here it is, 40 years after the song hit the air waves, and people still know it. Their kids and grandkids know it. By contrast, how many of these people know verbatim what’s written on their birth certificates, their diplomas, their marriage licenses, or their divorce decrees? Okay, the last one isn’t a great example since some of those are longer than War and Peace, but in the other cases, the amount of text is probably about the same length as the number of words in the song.

It’s easy to memorize poetry (and song lyrics usually qualify) because there are things like rhymes, stressed and unstressed syllables, and images that enable us to remember what comes next. We don’t usually get that kind of help with prose, which is the stuff most of us speak and write as we communicate with others each day unless we’re rap stars.

More than writing prose or poetry, speaking is something that most of us have to do every day whether at work or at home, and like creative writers who have poetic license, we have a good bit of freedom and latitude to mangle the language however we like when we’re around friends and family who will love us no matter what. We can cut grammatical corners with telemarketers who call at dinner time. We don’t always have to mind our Ps and Qs around some of the people with whom we work if they know we are trying to be funny by misusing words or being grammatically incorrect. Conscious, deliberate goofs are one thing, but nothing says more about us than our facility and accuracy with verbal communication.

In both Shaw’s Pygmalion and its musical version (My Fair Lady), Professor Higgins bets his friend Pickering that he can pass off the flower girl Eliza Doolittle as a member of royalty by simply teaching her how to speak proper English. During a premature trial run, the elegantly dressed Eliza attends the Ascot horse races and stuns the upper crust by talking about her aunt “what got done in by gin.” While funny, the scene proves the point that you can dress them up but still not be able to take them anywhere.

There is plenty of information available on dressing for success, but here are some pointers on speech habits that you need to pitch out immediately since they are just about as inappropriate as a string bikini or tuxedo at a company picnic. Just because you hear them used by television news anchors doesn’t mean they’re right. Take this information to heart because nothing will place you in the moron category faster than letting these abuses of language slip into your speech.

Just ask John or myself . . .

Use the simple pronoun “me.” If you’re copping out by using “myself” when you don’t know whether to say “I” or “me,” do this little quick check. Take out the other person (John), and ask yourself what you would use. Clearly it wouldn’t be “Just ask I,” so that leaves you one choice: me.

Irregardless of the outcome . . .

People get this mixed up with the word “irrespective,” but if you can understand the meanings of a couple of prefixes and suffixes, you shouldn’t have a problem. “Ir-” means not or without. So does “less.” The word “regardless” already means without (or minus or less) regard to, so if you tack on the prefix “ir-” you’re duplicating your effort with the negatives. Don’t do this. The word you want is simply “regardless.”

I could care less . . .

The implication here is that you actually are capable of caring less, but you are choosing not to do so right now. Maybe ten minutes from now you will reach the ultimate point of not caring. What you probably mean to say is that you “could not care less” than you do right at this moment.

I’m doing good.

The correct choice would be “well.” The word good is an adjective (I read a good book last week), but the word well is an adverb (I’m doing well despite my work load).

Where is it at?

While the rule has eased up a bit since bygone days when people went nuts if you ended a sentence with a preposition, there are some you just shouldn’t use, and the above is particularly hideous. By asking “Where is it,” you’ve already indicated a question about something’s location. You don’t need to double dose the question with the word at.

Between you, me, and the lamppost, I think Lily is going to . . .

Not only is the prepositional phrase a cliché, it also contains a wrong word choice. Only when you are considering two options (i.e. people, things, or ideas) should you use the preposition between. Three or more options require the word among. Leave off the “lamppost” above, and this would be correct.

Can I see that report?

You already know the answer: “I don’t know. Can you, or have you gone blind?” Some people can’t be reminded of this goof often enough. “Can” means having the ability to do something (in this example, the question, literally, is one that someone is asking himself or herself). Translation: Do I have the ability to see with my eyes and their current visual acuity the report? If, however, you are asking another person to hand you the report so that you are able to look at it yourself, the word you need is “may” since you are actually asking for permission.

I need to bring this book back to the library by tomorrow.

The verbs “bring” and “take” indicate action and movement, either toward or away from the speaker. If the speaker in the sentence above is returning something to a location away from himself or herself, the correct choice would be take. Bring would be the accurate verb in the question: Would you bring me the book I left on the kitchen table?

I imply from what Stan said in the meeting that . . .

Two words that cannot be used interchangeably are imply and infer. They have a couple of things in common. Both begin with the letter “I,” both contain 5 letters, and both are verbs. So much for their similarities. They mean completely different things. A speaker does the implying, but a listener does the inferring. To imply means to hint at or suggest something, but to infer means to make an assumption.

He wants to meet with Marty and I after work on Tuesday.

I saved the worst for last. This one is constantly used by even seemingly intelligent individuals. No doubt they were absent the day someone explained English pronoun cases. We’ve got three in our language: nominative, objective, and possessive. Altogether they consist of only 24 little words. Here’s a shortcut to help you know whether to use the nominative case I or the objective case me. Take Marty out of the equation, and now read the sentence: He wants to meet with I after work. Even if you can’t cite the rule, would you actually say this? Well, would you?

This is enough for you to process in one sitting. Learn from these examples of what not to say. Effective and accurate language use is the most crucial element in your professional “wardrobe,” so don’t blow your image by letting your “slips” show.