Sunday, June 29, 2008

Alternating Alternatives

I alternate between wanting to write about this topic and finding alternatives to it. It seems writers confuse this nigh-identical pair of words and today I'll finally clarify, for those of you who wonder how to differentiate between them.

If someone offers you an alternative, they are letting you choose a different idea or action. You may find an alternative solution or reply with an alternative approach. Whatever the situation, the word “alternative” means that you have a choice between at least two things.

Alternate, on the other hand, has more than one use. When you use it as an adjective (pronounced with a short a in the last syllable), you find an alternate or different route to your destination. In that case, you must do so because you cannot choose your original plan, because of road construction or a parade or some other obstruction. An alternate plan, or Plan B, is used not by choice but because the Plan A will no longer work. You can recycle your plastic bottles on alternate Wednesdays, taking them to the recycling center every other week.

You can also alternate between two things, using it as a verb with a long a in the final syllable. When translating, you alternate between, say, French and English so that both parties understand what the other has said. This use does not restrict you to two items, however. You can alternate among several pairs of jeans, in order not to wear out any one. This use implies a set rotation of choices, rather than simply choosing your favorite of the moment.

Both words can be transformed into adverbs, however, adding to writers' confusion. You can draw alternately from your personal experience and from the research into that of others when writing an article, meaning that you change your source from one to the other and back again. You can drive to work or alternatively take the bus. Did that sail over your head or, alternatively, do you catch what I'm throwing?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Personal Grammar Rant

I've not written about the importance of grammar and writing style for quite some time. Today I felt essentially slapped in the face by someone who wrote that people only care about such things because they live too-complacent lives in which they have no larger concerns. I beg to differ.

I care about my grammar and how I use words because I cannot clearly express myself without them. An incoherent rant acts to reinforce someone's negative impression of your point of view, rather than convincing them of anything. Dislocated modifiers and mangled syntax obscure your meaning and can destroy your credibility.

While pointing out the flaws in someone's grammar rebuts nothing of their argument, using correct subject-verb agreement and knowing the definition and spelling of the words you choose strengthens your own. Writing well contributes to better school performance. A person who can express themselves well If you can express yourself well, you can land a job that requires interacting with people.

I submit that people who deplore all those concerned with grammar and language use do so not because they have believe the sentiment that prompted this post but because they can't be bothered to learn the rules. Certainly, confusion abounds about some of the subjects I've covered here, but starting a sentence with, “I is” reflects not a lack of understanding but a willful ignoring.

If you choose to do so for a political reason, I support your choice to do so. In this case, (in a grammatically clean and well-spelled manner) a case was made that people only care about grammar because of my race or because they are somehow spoiled and weak. That not only offends me, personally, but it should offend people of any race or socioeconomic status, as it implies that being poor or of color makes you inherently unable to learn to express yourself well. I can think of many historical figures who would beg to differ, as well.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Do I Feel Bad or Badly?

In considering the passive voice and how it affects writing, I appear to have overlooked something that overturns a rule much beloved by grammar snobs. Today, I discovered the copula, R-rated though that may sound.

As the wiseGEEK explained, copular verbs may look like something else entirely and can change the correct word choice for your predicate.

Take, for instance, the sentence, “I look fabulous.” I would categorize this as a “passive” sentence because the verb involves no subject acting. If I wrote, “I look fabulously,” that would change it to an active sentence in which I am looking at or for something and am doing a bang-up job of it. Fabulously modifies look, in the second example, rather than “I”, acting as an adverb.

In the first example, look acts as a copula that identifies “I” as belonging to the set of attractive or well-groomed people. Fabulous remains an adjective and the copula links me to a state of being. People (read, "I") use this form consistently without even realizing that they do or why.

I'm relieved to have found a name for such a construction, finally. It will make answering a question like that posed in the above title so much simpler. I can archly reply, “It's a copular verb.” I only hope that I don't get reported for inappropriate language.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Yes, It Is Wrong Per Se

Of all of the Latin terms that have reached common use, “per se” suffers the most misspelling. Because “se” is not a word in English, people insist on “correcting” it to "say". Let's take at what the individual words mean and hope that it will help people remember how to spell and use it.

In Latin, per means “through” or “by means of”. You can use it with units of time, such as per diem or per annum meaning daily or yearly, and with parts of the body, like per os (by mouth, indicating how you take a medication) or per pedes (by foot or as a pedestrian).

Se simply acts as a reflexive pronoun, regardless of number or gender. It takes the place of herself, himself, itself, and themselves. A handy tool for a writer to have, don't you think?

Let's try an example.

Necessity is not the mother of invention per se. It requires inspiration to complete the creation.
In this case, you could write, “Necessity is not the mother of invention by itself,” or, “Necessity, alone, is not the mother of invention.” Either would capture the meaning of the Latin phrase.

Now that you know what it means, please do not hesitate to use it. The correct spelling will not make its way into the world per se, you know. It needs you to help show others the way.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Quickie Post: Apostrophe Abuse Alert

I grant my “Misused Apostrophe of the Day” award to the question I found this morning that began thus: “In Tom Jone's 2002 remix”. Perhaps a brief apostrophe review would help the asker more than the answer to the question posed.

Follow this simple rule for indicating possession: add an apostrophe and an s if using a singular noun. Poor Tom Jones has been stripped of his own s and reduced to Mr. Jone. That's no way to treat a musical legend.

The question should have begun, “In Tom Jones's 2002 remix...” At this point, I've forgotten the name of the song in question. There's nothing like a completely misplaced apostrophe to distract you from a writer's point.

For those of you who are thinking, "I though you only needed an apostrophe after a final s," please see my post on apostrophe placement after an s. Thanks for asking!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hear! Hear! Can You "Here" Me Now?

It seems that I am besieged by pet peeves of late. I reached the tipping point with another common error this week and have decided that clarification was long overdue. Let me hear you say, “Hear! Hear!” (That I wrote that, disregarding the fact that I know full well that I cannot hear you, must wait for another day. My irritation arose over the interjection.)

When you express your enthusiastic support for another, you write, “Hear! Hear!” You intend to call the attention of others to what you consider an important or eloquent point so that they may “hear” what the original “speaker” had to say.

Because the phrase grew out of oral.(and aural) situations, the spelling makes sense. In posts and comments around the Internet, however, you find people writing, “Here! Here!” While I sympathize with the idea that the respondent means to point out something about which they feel strongly, that doesn't make them correct.

Imagine the British Parliament of three hundred years ago, a rowdy bunch arguing and debating many issues at once. Of a sudden, a man shouts, “Hear him! Hear him!” and the group quiets to listen to one member make a point. So far as I can uncover, the abbreviation of that practice explains the phrase.

Recall that mental image when you write your support for another's post. The on-line rabble squabbles and squeals like a spoiled, drunken bunch of landed gentry in1750. When one of them breaks out of the crowd with a valuable contribution, help it get heard. Now, pardon me whilst I stow my soap box.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Difference Is Duly Noted

The following post caught my attention today: “Dually noted.”

While I would (almost) never presume to correct someone's post directly, I felt that this one deserved some attention here. When you want to use “due” as an adverb, you drop the e and add the -ly suffix. The poster above intended to let the person to whom he or she responded know that their point was worth noting and that it had been.

If you exercise due caution, you are being duly cautious. If the person with whom you are talking says something that is due your attention, you tell them that it is duly noted and thus clarify that it has received that attention.

You can substitute properly, promptly, or appropriately for duly. What you can't do is add extra letters. The phrase “dually noted” means that you've not only made a note of something, but that you've done so twice or in two places. I suppose that would be a higher compliment, but one that would be inaccurate and unintended in most cases.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Adverse versus Averse: I'd Rather Not

Adverse conditions make me averse to work. How often we see these two words confused for one another, forced to assume roles for which they are ill-suited. Let us take a moment and review the abused and confused meanings.

If you would label something “adverse”, it must be hostile to or unfavorable for something else. Adverse current keep sailboats from landing. Stockbrokers sell when they read adverse financial reports. You use adverse as an adjective to explain that the related noun works against another thing.

Averse is also used as an adjective, and can also mean hostile. I'm not surprised that the two become confused in many writers' minds. The sense of the word generally indicates, however, a milder dislike or disinclination to act rather than actively working against an action. I may be averse to driving on the freeway, but I will do so when necessary. I'm not averse to a drink every now and again, but neither am I actively seeking one.

I could not come up with a sentence containing averse that did not have a passive construction. That seems fitting, considering the weakness of emotion it implies. You can change the first such example above to begin “I prefer not to drive on the freeway” without changing the meaning of the sentence. Thus, “I am averse to driving under adverse conditions” could be changed to “I would rather not drive in rough weather” without losing your point or confusing your readers.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Distractions at

I spent my blogging time today reading the fascinating responses at's Frequently Asked Questions section of Ask the Experts. I don't know how frequently those questions are asked, but you can certainly travel a distracting breadcrumb of English language questions.

They will tell you, for instance, whether a tomato should be considered a fruit or a vegetable. They've tackled this question not just because most people want to know but because it gives them a chance to explain just what constitutes a “fruit”.

Not only can you better understand the silent h, honestly, but you can find a list of collective terms for animals and a collection of tips for better writing. I swear, I didn't know about their “One Step Ahead” series when I named this blog. I feel obligated to explore it, however. In the meantime, enjoy the fruits of other people's labor, on me.