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More Words You’re Probably Using Wrong

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Tiffany Yates Martin FoxPrint Editorial
I see you, word nerds. I know who you are. You’re the ones who can’t drive by a billboard with a grammar mistake (“In a class of it’s own”) without visibly cringing. Who have memes like this as your screen saver. Who keep Dreyer’s English in your nightstand and regularly reread and analyze passages like it’s the King James Bible.

I see you, and I feel you.

As an editor I may or may not derive an inordinate amount of amusement from malapropisms, dangling modifiers, quotation marks misused for emphasis that call the author’s “authority” into question, and comically clumsily translated signs like these…but I know I am not alone.

A few posts ago I wrote about words you’re probably using wrong, and from the comments it seemed to hit a chord with my fellow word nerds, so here’s another ridiculous helping of word nerdery to delight you, enlighten you, and perhaps let you bask in superiority, chortling at those poor benighted fools who violate the vernacular. (Spoiler, though—judging from my 15 years at the beginning of my editing career as a Big Six copyeditor, that’s most of us at some time or another.)

Misusing our language commits a cardinal sin of writing, which is to muddy your intentions and the readers’ experience of your story. Knowing how to use the main tool of our business, language, allows you to be a more effective storyteller.

So with that lofty goal in mind…let’s get down and nerdy with it.

Picking Apart Parts of Speech

You don’t “feel badly” for someone, unless you’re trying to have a feeling for them and you just can’t swing it; you simply feel bad for them. (Probably because of their substandard grammar, I’m betting.)

And you don’t cap a list of progressively important things with “most importantly,” unless you’re saying it with the air of a self-satisfied douchebag—it’s just “most important.”

I might wonder hopefully if you already knew that, but I wouldn’t write “Hopefully you knew that” unless I’m referring to the optimistic quality of your knowing.

Something can be “on top of” something else, or “over it,” or even “over-the-top” (as this post, in fact, could be accused of being), but not “overtop” unless you’re using it as a colloquialism in a character’s point of view. “Overtop” is not a preposition, any more than “underbottom” or “throughmiddle” are.

While we’re on the topic, “any more” referring to quantity should be two words, not one, in usages such as the last sentence. “Anymore” is only for time, despite that for some philistines these usages are supposedly interchangeable (but never supposably).

My examples have taken a turn for the worse—which is a worst-case scenario for some readers, if worse comes to worst.

If you haven’t as yet tuned out (never “as of yet”—but you already knew that, didn’t you?), let’s move on to other troubling misusages.

Fallacious phraseology

If you’re offering someone an ARC of your book, it’s an advance copy, not an advanced one (unless you are distinguishing it from a remedial edition you give to your less erudite friends).

If you’re letting it all hang out you’re buck naked, not butt naked (no matter how intuitive the latter may seem, given the fundamental involvement of one’s derriere). And no judgments if you do like to get nakey­ on the regular—that’s perfectly all right (but never alright).

Less refers to number; fewer to amount. For that matter, “number” delineates the numeric quantity of something, and “amount” its volume. By this time, though, maybe you couldn’t care less (not “fewer,” of course)—not “could care less,” because if you can still care even less than you already do, there’s work to be done yet in getting you good and fed up.

If you’re lousy with cash, you may be flush, but you’re flushed only if you’re also feeling embarrassed about it, or overheated from earning it. (Or if the school bully has shoved your head into the toilet to take it from you.)

On that note, you may flush out something from your eye, but if you’re expanding on a topic (such as flushing), then you’re fleshing it out—even though that sounds like the scene of a grisly murder (but not a gristly one, unless the corpse is also quite tough to the tooth). That might land you in dire straits (not straights, unless you’re around a bunch of nihilistic heterosexuals).

I’ve taken a tortuous route to arrive at some of these metaphors…which might be feeling torturous to some of you. So shall we move on to a final lightning round?

Pesky Peccadilloes

If you’re a charmingly innocent little naïf, you may be ingenuous, but if you’re only pretending to be, then you’re being disingenuous.

If you see something shaking, it may be quivering; but if you hear it, it’s quavering.

Your lover may be discrete from your spouse, but if so for the love of matrimony be discreet about it (unless you’ve given each other free rein to roam—not reign).

If you’re annoyed that your climbing partner is flagging before you reach the summit, you might feel a fit of pique if you take a peek up at the peak.

Your QAnon uncle’s ridiculous jive talk about conspiracy theories may not jibe with the facts, but your harsh teasing about it is a gibe (and your taunt might draw the tension taut).

A finicky artist who likes to create his paintings from a crude makeshift bed (or flat shipping container) is a painter with a delicate palate using a palette on his pallet.

If you’re still enjoying this pedantic nonsense, then perhaps I’ll continue to add to this series I started with the previous post I alluded to (but I didn’t elude it unless I ran away from it and it couldn’t find me again).

It’s not an illusion—that last allusion was a bit of a stretch. I hope this silliness has left you amused…but if I’ve simply left you lost in confusion you’re bemused.

All right, my grammar geeks, you’re up! Let’s hear your favorite vexations of verbiage.

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