Dear Mr. Dad: Last week you wrote about a number of grammar mistakes that you find annoying. Reading through your column, those mistakes didn’t seem so bad. What’s the big deal?
As I said last week, English is constantly evolving, and that’s a wonderful thing. But no matter how much our language changes, we’ll always have to use words to get others to understand what we’re thinking. Grammatical errors sometimes make clear communication difficult. Here are some of the biggest offenders.
- Dangling Modifiers. A modifier is a word that affects another part of the sentence. Separating the modifier from what it’s modifying often causes confusion. For example, in your statement, “Reading through your column, those mistakes didn’t seem so bad,” who was reading? I’m sure you meant that you were. But it sounds like the mistakes were the ones doing the reading. It’s better—and clearer—to say, “As I read your column, I didn’t think that those mistakes were so bad.” Dangling modifiers are everywhere: “The cops chased the robbers in their squad cars” (if the robbers are already in the squad cars, why do the cops need to chase them?). “We saw dozens of dangerous snakes and spiders on vacation in Borneo” (since when do snakes and spiders go on vacation?). Fixing dangling modifiers is usually pretty simple: “The cops got into their squad cars and chased…” or “While on vacation in Borneo, we saw…”
- Uninterested vs. Disinterested. They sound similar but aren’t. An uninterested person is bored or simply doesn’t care. A disinterested person is unbiased or impartial. If you’re on trial for your life, you’d rather have a disinterested judge than an uninterested one.
- 360 Degrees. One often hears about people who made “a 360-degree change.” They’re trying to say that their life changed dramatically, but making a 360-degree change means making a full circle and ending up right back where you started. To truly turn your life around, all you need is 180 degrees.
- “Penultimate.” People use this word to mean something that’s beyond ultimate. But it really means “second to last,” as in “this sentence is the penultimate one in the paragraph.” This is the last one.
- “Literally.” This word means, “Exactly as written or stated.” But people use it in place of “really, really, really,” as in “I was literally crushed when my girlfriend broke up with me.” The grieving ex-boyfriend doesn’t really mean that every bone in his body was smashed. Hopefully. The children’s literature character Amelia Bedelia is famous for taking things literally. When her employer told her to “draw the drapes,” Amelia picked up a pencil and paper and did a lovely sketch.
- Homophones. These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. There are literally dozens of them, and using the wrong one can distort what you’re saying in hilarious and/or horrifying ways. For example, putting your hands on your waist (the part of your body just above your hips) is quite different than putting your hands on your waste (your garbage—or worse). Your uncle would no doubt be very upset to find that he was married to your ant instead of your aunt. If you need to move a heavy object, a guy with big muscles would be a lot handier to have around than a guy with big mussels (the seafood). And if that guy with big mussels is broke, he may not have a cent (a penny)—but he probably has a scent (an odor). Other homophones include to, two, and too; way and weigh; flew and flue; road and rowed; and principle and principal.
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