Friday, July 31, 2009

Troublesome only when written

There are some compound English word tandems—meaning two words that can either be spelled as one word or two words and yield different meanings—that won’t give you any trouble when spoken, but they could mark you as a less-than-competent writer when you mess them up in written form. I’m talking here about such word pairs as “everyday”/”every day,” “maybe”/may be,” “awhile”/”a while,” “altogether”/”all together,” “anyway”/”any way,” and “everything”/every thing.” Indeed, when you don’t make it your business to write your thoughts at all but only speak them, you can spend an entire lifetime not knowing the differences in the meanings of these word pairs. But if you need to write or enjoy writing letters and e-mail to friends, family members, and business associates, or—even more crucial—if you write for a living, it pays to know very well the differences in those meanings and to reflect them accordingly in how you spell those compound words. That way, you’ll leave no doubt in anybody’s mind—“anybody,” by the way, is another of those words along with “any body”—that you’ve really learned and know your English exceptionally well.

It was to help writers minimize their misuse of those problematic word tandems that I wrote the following essay, “One-Word, Two-Word Mix-ups,” for my column in The Manila Times almost a year ago. I hope the written English of those who haven’t read it yet would also be fine-tuned by its prescriptions.

One-Word, Two-Word Mix-ups

In my work as an editor, I often spend considerable time correcting a good number of single words that should have been spelled out in two, or two words that should have been spelled out as just one word. I sometimes wish I could leave those words well enough alone so I could save time, but most of them could actually mean something different—even wrong—if not rendered in the proper way.

The word “everyday” is a particularly instructive case. Many writers habitually use it to mean “each day” in sentences like this: “She tends to her garden everyday.” That’s wrong usage, of course, for “everyday” is an adjective that means “encountered or used routinely,” as in “Our prim lady professor shocked us when came to class in everyday dress.” So the correct word choice in the sentence in question is the two-word variant: “She tends to her garden every day.” Here, it literally means “each day without fail.” As computer-savvy people might say, “every day” is wysiwyg, which is computer-speak for “what you see is what you get.”

Another recurrently misused tandem is “maybe”/“may be,” which not a few writers often use interchangeably. But the single-word form is, as we know, an adverb that means “perhaps,” as in “Maybe sabotage is what caused that plane crash.” On the other hand, “may be” is a verb form indicating possibility or probability, as in “You may be right about that woman after all.” We don’t say, “You maybe right about that woman after all.”

I strongly advise writers to also clearly differentiate between “awhile” and “a while.” The single-word form is an adverb that means “for a time”—a short period reckoned from a particular action or condition—as in “Dinner’s almost ready; please wait awhile.” On the other hand, the noun “while” preceded by the article “a” serves as the object of the preposition in expressions like these two: “It’s raining hard; stay for a while.” “We thought for a while that she could be trusted.” But take note that when we knock off the preposition “for” in such expressions, changing “a while” to “awhile” becomes a correct, natural option: “It’s raining hard; stay awhile.” “We thought awhile that she could be trusted.”

In the same vein, I must caution writers from giving their prose the wrong drift by using the two-word “all together” in such sentences as “The committee’s assessment of the situation was all together inaccurate.” It delivers an incorrect meaning for that statement because “all together” means “everyone in a group” or “all in one place.” The correct word is the adverb “altogether,” which means “wholly, “completely,” or “as a whole”: “The committee’s assessment of the situation was altogether inaccurate.”

Some of the manuscripts I copyedit also misuse the “anyway”/“any way” tandem every now and then. We know that the one-word variant means “in any case” or “anyhow,” and its two-word counterpart, “any particular manner, course, or direction.” So it’s incorrect to write, “We told her to avoid seeing that man, but she continued to date him any way”; instead, it should be, “We told her to avoid seeing that man, but she continued to date him anyway.” Conversely, it’s incorrect to write, “Do it anyway you like; after all, you’re the one paying for it”; instead, it should be, “Do it any way you like; after all, you’re the one paying for it.”

And just in case you are among those who still have trouble mistaking “everything” for “every thing,” let’s clarify the difference between them once and for all. The single-word “everything” means “all that there is” or “all that is important,” as in this sentence: “She took care of everything for me—from my speaking engagements to my travel bookings.” The two-word variant, however, means “each thing individually” and usually allows an adjective in-between: “Every little thing means a lot to her.” (August 30, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 30, 2008 issue © 2008 by The Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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2 comments:

  1. This was very informative. Have you any thoughts on "all right"/"alright"?

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  2. The fight goes on between the proponents of “all right” as the only correct usage and those of “alright” as a legitimate variant of “all right,” but I don’t feel strongly either way and I really won’t lose sleep over anyone’s choice between them.

    The descriptivist stance about “all right / alright” is, of course, exemplified by the usage note for them by Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary:

    “usage - The one-word spelling 'alright' appeared some 75 years after 'all right' itself had reappeared from a 400-year-long absence. Since the early 20th century some critics have insisted 'alright' is wrong, but it has its defenders and its users. It is less frequent than 'all right' but remains in common use especially in journalistic and business publications. It is quite common in fictional dialogue, and is used occasionally in other writing, as in 'the first two years of medical school were alright'— Gertrude Stein.”

    On the other hand, the prescriptivist stance is taken by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

    “Despite the appearance of the form ‘alright’ in works of such well-known writers as Langston Hughes and James Joyce, the single word spelling has never been accepted as standard. This is peculiar, since similar fusions such as ‘already’ and ‘altogether’ have never raised any objections. The difference may lie in the fact that ‘already’ and ‘altogether’ became single words back in the Middle Ages, whereas ‘alright’ has only been around for a little more than a century and was called out by language critics as a misspelling. Consequently, one who uses ‘alright’, especially in formal writing, runs the risk that readers may view it as an error or as the willful breaking of convention.”

    As for me, my only advice is this: Use “all right” in formal writing like academic essays and dissertations as well as office reports and job application letters; you never can tell if your professor or prospective boss is a rabid prescriptivist who’d think much less of you if you used “alright” instead of “all right.” In newspaper and magazine writing, don’t tangle with your editors about this usage; just follow whatever is prescribed by the official stylebook. In informal writing like blogs and letters to friends, however, don’t be afraid to use “alright.” It can make your writing sound relaxed and upbeat; in contrast, using “all right” just might make you sound too formal and uptight.

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