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The Blogger Abides: Words and Phrases I've Misused


Have you ever wondered what it's like to interview famous people who are intimidatingly awesome and/or rude? Have you asked yourself, "Do bloggers wear pants?" Have you mused aloud, "How can I write words, using a computing device, for small quantities of money?" I thought so. Read on for an excerpt from the book -- this is from Frequent Offenders, which is chapter seventy-seven (I'm not kidding) in
my new opus.

Frequent Offenders

Here’s a list of words and phrases that are problematic and/or commonly misused. I hope these explanations save you from embarrassing yourself someday.

Alot

“A lot” is two words. If you write “alot” you are either misspelling “allot” (synonym: allocate) or you’re about to get kicked out of Professional Writer Club. (See also: the Alot, Allie Brosh’s imaginary creature/)

Could Care Less

A lot of people say “I could care less” when they mean “I couldn’t care less.” Think about it. Think really hard. Then start saying “couldn’t,” unless you don’t care about sounding like a doofus. (Practical note: commenters will nail you on this one, and there is no defensible case for the “incorrect” form. So, really, this one is a slam-dunk.)

Baited Breath

Imagine my surprise when I wrote a sentence like, “I’ve been waiting for the new Neal Stephenson book with baited breath,” and commenters dryly informed me that the correct spelling is “bated.” Look it up. It’s “bated breath.” Who knew? (I didn’t.)

Moot

The word “moot” is deeply problematic: part of the world thinks it means “open to debate,” the rest of the world thinks it means “not worth debating.” There is no proper way around this, so I suggest you try to stop using this word, if you intend to write for a broad audience. I wrote a post about it entitled The Meaning of the Word “Moot” is Moot. People still argued with me.

Graduated High School

You graduated from high school. You did not “graduate high school.” (Or college. Or clown college. Or whatever.) Use the “from,” otherwise people will rip you a new one.

Needs Fixed

This colloquialism (omitting “to be” in the middle of a statement) is controversial because part of the English-speaking world thinks it’s perfectly fine vernacular (which could mean it’s part of using your voice), and the other half is baffled about why you’re omitting a seemingly crucial verb. I never encountered this construction until I moved to the west coast, though I gather it’s a regional thing in many places. Anyway, I’d suggest you include all relevant verbs in your writing to avoid confusion.

Tough Road to Hoe

A lot of idioms don’t seem to make sense, particularly if you (like me) never really heard them right, and just said what you thought you heard. It’s “a tough row to hoe,” not “a tough road to hoe.” Hoeing a row is something you do in a garden. With a hoe. It’s tough. You don’t hoe a road. I think maybe I thought it was “a tough road a-ho” for a while, which also seems to mean nothing (unless perhaps that’s short for “ahoy”), but maybe in some old-timey slang from my primitive brain it means something…anyway, pro tip: when using some seemingly nonsensical idiom in your writing, Google it first to figure it out what it really is and how to write it properly.

Sewing Confusion

Sowing is another garden idiom–you sow seeds into the ground. I’m not sure if this happens before or after hoeing the row. Probably after. Anyway, watch out for the easy misspelling here–“sow” is easily mistyped as “sew.”

Myriad Plethoras

The word “plethora” traditionally has a negative connotation–so you’d say something like, “I’m pretty sure she’s crazy because she owns a plethora of cats and also never wears shoes.” In modern usage it’s often used much like “myriad,” just meaning “a lot of something”–but some readers will freak out, because of its traditional use as “a problematically large number or amount of something.” Further, the word myriad actually has a positive connotation–so you’d say something like, “Myriad stars shone from above.” (Note: debate rages over the possible uses of the word myriad. In the example just now, I used it as an adjective. It may also be used as a noun, just like plethora: “A myriad of stars shone from above.”)

In short: myriad good, plethora bad (due to quantity).

Proffered and Preferred

To proffer is to offer; to prefer is to favor. It’s easy to mistype these or have auto-correct mess it up for you.

Literally the Best Tip Ever

The word “literally” roughly means “actually.” It has a convenient antonym: “figuratively.” So while I would literally pitch a baseball, I would figuratively pitch a fit. Somehow, these two terms get mixed up in people’s brains (and to be fair, this has been going on for centuries–the word “literally” is misused in Little Women). There are whole websites devoted to the misuse of these terms. In short, if you use the term “literally” solely for emphasis, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Hopefully I Hope

This is pedantic, but get used to it–pedants will comment on your blog posts. “I hope” means what you think it means. For example, “I hope it doesn’t rain today.” However, “hopefully” is an adverb. Thus, technically speaking, “Hopefully it won’t rain today” is nonsensical. A proper use of “hopefully” would be: “The boy gazed hopefully at the bag of Halloween candy in his mother’s hands.”

Technical note: because of overwhelming common usage, “hopefully” is arguably valid in its non-adverbial form; it occupies a similar linguistic space as terms like “interestingly,” “frankly,” and “unfortunately.” I freely misuse all of those terms, but for some reason, “hopefully” does bug me.

Different From/Than/To

There are some instances of “different than” in American English, and “different to” in British English. In general, however, the best and most common form is “different from.” For example: “Joe’s haircut was different from Steve’s.” In general, I always try to use “different from,” although such esteemed authorities as the Oxford Dictionary Online suggest that all forms are equally valid. Be aware that if you write for American pedants (I mean readers), “different to” will catch the most flak.

What Did I Leave Out?

I'll eventually have to "revise and expand" this thing to cash in on lucrative paperback sales. What would you add to this list?

Now the Hard Sell

The Blogger AbidesThe book is available now for Kindle. If you don't have a Kindle, consult my website for the answer to the oft-asked question I don't have a Kindle. How can I read this? (Short answer: on your phone, tablet, web browser, Mac, PC, or smart fridge.)
 
Pro tip: if you're an Amazon Prime member and have a Kindle, you can "borrow" the book for free from your Kindle. You should do that. There's also a free preview available for anyone -- grab that from the rightmost column of the Amazon page.

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Can You Guess the Secret Word in This Brain Teaser?
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On his YouTube channel Mind Your Decisions, Presh Talwalkar shares logic puzzles dealing with geometry, statistics, and algebra. The puzzle below from the former Stanford math and economics student features no numbers, but that doesn’t mean it's easy to figure out.

To solve the brain teaser, you need to guess the secret word based on a few clues. Here’s the set-up: A teacher is leading a class and Albert, Bernard, and Cheryl are his students. He writes the words "cat," "dog," "has," "max," "dim," and "tag" on the board. He distributes one sheet of paper to each of his three students, with each piece containing a different letter from one of the words. He then tells them that together their letters spell one of the words on the board. The students only know their letter, they don’t know anyone else's.

The teacher asks Albert if he knows the secret word. Albert says yes, he does know it. Next, the teacher asks Bernard. After some hesitation, he replies that yes, he knows the secret word as well. Finally, the teacher asks Cheryl if she knows what the word is. She thinks for a moment and says that yes she does. Albert, Bernard, and Cheryl have successfully guessed the secret word. Do you know what it is based on their answers?

Figuring out the word without knowing any of its letters may seem difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you don’t know where to start, think about Albert’s answer and use the process of elimination to rule out some of the letters and words written on the board. Keep in mind that Bernard could only come to his conclusion from Albert’s answer, and Cheryl from Bernard’s.

Still lost? If you haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet, the correct answer is "dog." When Albert answers that he knows what the right word is based on one letter, you can use that information to narrow down his possible letters to one of the six that are never repeated on the board: c, o, h, s, x, and i. And when Bernard says that he knows too, you can deduce that his list of potential letters is limited to t, g, h, or s. That leaves "cat," "dog," and "has" as the three remaining options. Cheryl’s answer confirms that she has the letter d, which means the secret word is "dog."

If you’re looking for a more detailed walkthrough of the puzzle-solving process, check out the video from Presh Talwalkar below.

[h/t Mind Your Decisions]

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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