Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo

by Cherie Tucker

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” There are a few of those “close” words lurking about today that it would behoove us all to be aware of, lest they take over our fingers as we write.

One of the most often seen disparities is everyday versus every day. The first one, a single word, means ordinary or commonplace. “Chaos is an everyday condition around here.” The two-word every day means daily. You use it to talk about something that happens each day. “He sends me flowers every day.” (We know that’s not commonplace.)

Another often confused pair is comprise and compose. The parts comprise the whole: “Five buildings comprise this complex.” The whole is composed of the parts: “Our competitor’s complex is composed of only four.” An easy way to remember this one is to keep the o’s together. If your comparison ends with of, you want composed, which also has an o. Things are never comprised of.

One that it may be too late to recover is the word nauseous fornauseated. If you have an upset tummy and feel you must run to the loo, you are nauseated. If your mere presence causes others to have to run to the loo, you are nauseous, which by definition is “causing nausea.” Currently, however, many people and as many commercials use nauseous to mean nauseated. Writers must choose what they wish their words to convey. If you know your character would say, “I feel nauseous whenever I look at that dress,” have her say that. 

Correctness is not a substitute for appropriateness in the piece you are writing. There is a story the late William A. Sabin, magnificent wordsmith and author of the writer’s bible, The Gregg Reference Manual, often told “of the visitor to New York who gave the cabbie the exact fare but no tip. When the taxi driver still held out his hand expectantly, the visitor inquired, ‘Isn’t that correct?’ To which the cabbie replied, ‘It’s correct, lady, but it ain’t right.’” 

Our language is always changing. Consider the word parent. A couple of decades ago people had parents or became parents. Nobody parented. There were no parenting classes. Now it’s no longer just a noun; it’s been verbed and adjectived. Many words have. But not all of them. Just remember that in order to break rules intentionally, you must know what they are in the first place. The words you choose control your reader’s mind. Be sure they do what you want.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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