August 7, 2008

Words That Make Me Wince, Part 2

Probably no message that I have sent out in the past few months has generated more e-mail in response than my tirade about misused words. It seems that many of you have your own pet peeves.

So here is the sequel: another installment of Words that Make Me Wince.

In an earlier message, we commented on some words that are frequently misused, including impact, parameter, affect/effect, serve/service, and simple/simplistic. These are words that writers often use incorrectly and, speaking strictly for myself, the errors make me wince.

For example, a proposal recently stated:

"All communications, which effect the technical aspects of the project, must be directed through the Project Manager."

The obvious error is the word "effect." The writer meant "affect," a verb. In addition, the idea of directing communications "through the Project Manager" is an intriguing one. A lot of communications could leave that Project Manager looking like a sieve.

Well, there are a few other words and mistakes that bug me.

First, why do people write, "There are more than 114 sales managers attending the conference." Why not a round number like 100? Or 110, even? Why "more than 114?" And what is that, anyway? 115?

Another goofy thing-a phenomenon I call "drive by capitalization." It's the apparently uncontrollable urge some people have to throw in a capital letter every so often. The result is this kind of passage:

Nova Technology's long term Strategy is to contribute significantly to our customers' Competitiveness by becoming world-class in Reliable and Responsive.

There are at least eight things wrong with that sentence, but one of the most pointless mistakes is the capitalization of strategy, competitiveness, reliable, and responsive.

Here are some other mistakes that undercut our credibility:

IT'S/ITS/ITS': It's pretty embarrassing to misspell a three-letter word, but people do it all the time. I-T-apostrophe-S is a contraction. It means "it is." I-T-S without the apostrophe is a possessive pronoun. For example: "The company and its board of directors...." I-T-S-apostrophe doesn't exist. There's no such word.

Maybe it will help people who make this mistake to think about other possessive pronouns, such as "yours," "hers," "ours," and "theirs." None of those words get an apostrophe. I guess the confusion stems from the fact that we show possessive case with nouns by adding an apostrophe-S: "The company's managers..." "The building's exit..." The customer's decision..." (Using the apostrophe that way is a mistake that goes back so far in the history of English that it has become accepted.)

PRINCIPAL/PRINCIPLE: Most of us remember that "the principal is our pal." What about the main partners in a law firm? It's the same word. The main person or main thing is the "principal" element. "Principal" can also mean "leader" or "head."

On the other hand, a "principle" is a code, a standard, or an axiom. Thus, we could say, "Some principals have no principles" and make perfect sense.

IMPLY/INFER: To imply something means to suggest it. Inanimate objects can imply things. For example, we could say, "The laboratory tests imply that the new compounds are safer than the current formulation."

To infer requires mental activity. It's an activity. Thus, we would say, "Sherlock Holmes inferred from the evidence that the crime had been committed by a disgruntled proposal writer."

COMPLIMENT/COMPLEMENT: To "compliment" means to say something nice, to flatter someone. To "complement" means to go with, to fulfill or augment something. If the menu says each entrée includes "a dinner salad to compliment your meal," we may be interested to hear what those compliments will be, but we're likely to find that the salad is just as mute as any other plate of lettuce.

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