A rerun of The Office inspired this week’s topic–word usage
The episode, called Casino Night, centers on a charity event at the office, and bumbling boss Michael Scott (played by actor Steve Carell) tells the audience,
I consider myself a great philanderer.
He means, of course, philanthropist, or charitable person. Philanderer, on the other hand, means a person who is unfaithful or promiscuous.
This sort of ironic wordplay is part of the genius of the show and of the Michael Scott character, who is, in fact, a philanderer (especially in this episode when he invites two dates to casino night). However, it’s a fairly realistic (though comic) portrayal of how usage errors occur. Word usage errors are probably one of the most common mistakes I see, and, as Mignon Fogarty points out in her Quick and Dirty Tips book, they can get you in the most trouble! Common usage errors include confusing there/their/they’re or a/an or to/two/too. However, there are many more common mix-ups that were not drilled into our heads in school. There are too many specific usage errors for me to list all of them and attempt to create memorable ways of avoiding making such mistakes. I could probably devote a blog just to usage errors (and maybe I will someday.)
I will, however, attempt to explain why and when usage errors occur. In my experience, the highest frequency of usage errors occurs when the writer is writing outside of her style comfort zone. An example might be when a writer cops an uber-formal tone. Examples of these are cover letters for job interviews, formal essays, or other pieces in which the writer assumes the audience wants her to appear excessively knowledgeable or professional. Or, simply, when the writer has no idea who the audience is.
Just recently, while editing a friend’s cover letter for a job application, I came across this usage snafu:
I will make a consorted effort to promote a positive image of your company.
I knew consorted was not the right word. The phrase is concerted effort.
- Consort=partner or companion
- To consort=to accompany, to keep company with, to be in agreement with
Either way, it doesn’t make sense. Agreeing with the effort? Accompanying the effort?
Once I fixed that, I had to read over it a few times. Sure, the phrase “I will make a concerted effort” has passed through my ears and even over my lips many times, but here, in the context of this letter, it seemed glaringly wrong. But why? I looked it up: Concert means sort of what it says. As an adjective, concerted means in collaboration with. It can also mean carried out with great strain. It does work, technically, but it still felt wrong. I suggested conscious effort because conscious means to do something on purpose. Better yet, strike the phrase and go with a strong, simple verb in future tense. It sounds less wishy-washy and wordy. It could read like, “I’ll try to promote your company, but I might not succeed.” You don’t want to invite doubt. Instead:
I will promote a positive image of your company.
Pay attention to what the words you are using actually mean. Often I find writers regurgitate words and phrases that they have heard used, but whose origins and meanings elude them. I wouldn’t suggest that you memorize all of the possible usage errors that you might make, but I would suggest looking carefully at the words you choose and learning what they mean. The reason usage errors occur when a writer ventures out of his comfort zone is because he tries to use words and phrases he thinks he has heard before. Even though we learn language through mimicry, it’s not always a good way to pick up new vocabulary. Make sure you know what you are saying and what it means before your try it out on a potential future boss.
Pop Quiz. From the following list, pick the correct usage of the word or phrase:
1) A. for all intensive purposes B. for all intents and purposes
2) A. car insurance B. car ensurance C. car assurance
3) A. cause and affect B. cause and effect
4) A. six of one-half, dozen of another B. six of one, half-dozen of the other
5) A. weather or not B. whether or not
6) A. the call was of an urgent nature B. the call was of an emergent nature
7) A. the new tv is defective B. the new tv is deflective
8.) A. the robber eluded the police B. the robber alluded the police
9.) A. the magician was a master of allusion B. the magician was a master of illusion
10.) A. please be discreet about your raise B. please be discrete about your raise
Answers will be posted after class on Thursday. Good luck!