Friday, June 25, 2010

Avoiding the embarrassing pitfall of misusing certain English words

Some otherwise good writers in English ruin the fine tapestry of their writing by habitually misusing certain words and phrases—mostly adverbial modifiers, similar sounding or similar looking verbs, and adjectival modifiers with overlapping but not necessarily the same meanings. If not spotted and corrected by a good editor, these misused words and phrases could mark the writer of a published piece as either reckless or not so competent with his or her English.

I wrote the essay below, “Some often misused English words,” for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004 to keep writers and speakers on red alert against these very common pitfalls in word usage. I think now’s as good a time as any to reactivate that red alert, so I have decided to post that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum. I do hope that it could spare Forum members from an embarrassing situation or two arising from the misuse of these words and phrases.   

Some often misused English words

Let’s discuss some frequently misused English words and phrases, and I suggest we begin with the problematic word-pair “maybe” and “may be.” The first is, of course, an adverb that means “perhaps,” as in “Shifting from ceramic to plastic maybe a good alternative.” The other, “may be,” is a compound verb that means the same thing: “You may be wrong about this, but I will support your decision.” Always keep in mind, however, that “maybe” and “may be” are not interchangeable in writing, and that the first syllable of “maybe” is pronounced with a much heavier stress than the second, while the two words of “may be” get equal stress.

Now let’s proceed by taking up six similar looking, similar sounding, or very closely related word-pairs or phrase-pairs that often get mistaken for each another:

Respectively/respectfully. The adverb “respectively,” of course, denotes that the order of mention of sequentially listed items corresponds to precisely the same order of mention as their antecedent words: “Eduardo, Jennifer, and Alberto made it to the honor roll. They took the first, second, and third honors, respectively.” On the other hand, the adverb “respectfully” means “marked by or showing respect,” as in “Normally very assertive, she talked respectfully when she addressed the presiding judge.”

Rightly/rightfully (rightful). The first means “in a proper or correct manner, but with no presumed legal basis,” as in “They rightly decided to boycott the proceedings.” In contrast, “rightfully” means “having a right or just claim to some property or position”: “She proved that she was rightfully the owner [or “the rightful owner”] of the bank account.”

Assure/ensure/insure. These three words are perhaps among the most carelessly interchanged synonyms in English. Their meanings differ very substantially, however, and the verbs “assure” and “ensure” behave differently as well. “Assure” means “to convince” or “guarantee,” while “ensure” means “to make certain.” “Assure” needs a direct object to work properly, “ensure” does not: “You have to assure me that you will come promptly at noon tomorrow.” “You have to ensure that you will come promptly at noon tomorrow.” On the other hand, “insure” means “to guard against loss”: “It is prudent to insure your car with comprehensive accident coverage.”

Compose/comprise/consist of/include. Correctly choosing among these closely related but definitely unsynonymous words will perhaps remain slippery both to native and nonnative English speakers. As a rule of thumb, parts compose a whole, and the whole comprises or consists of its parts. The differences between them may also be stated this way: “comprise” could refer to all parts or only major parts, “consist” means that all parts are listed, but “include” does not guarantee that the list of those parts is complete. See how these words work: “Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom compose a water molecule.” (Conversely: “A water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.”) “A water molecule comprises [consists of] two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” “A water molecule includes two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” Never catch yourself making this grammatical atrocity: “A water molecule is comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.”

Almost the same/very similar/nearly identical. Like the misshapen phrase “almost unique,” the phrase “almost the same” is extremely informal and is particularly unsuited for technical or scientific writing: “The two computers had almost the same features.” Things are either the same or they are not. Better and more precise for expressing the idea are the phrases “very similar,” “nearly identical,” “highly comparable,” or—in the case of quantitative comparisons—“nearly equivalent”: “The two computers had very similar [nearly identical, highly comparable] features.” “The hard disk capacities of the two computers are nearly equivalent.

On the contrary/in contrast. Some people use these two phrases interchangeably, little knowing the fundamental differences between them. “On the contrary” is a subjective qualifier—often used in informal speech—indicating disagreement or opposition to another person’s position or opinion; “in contrast” is an objective qualifier that dispassionately indicates a marked distinction or opposite effect. Feel the difference: “On the contrary, sir, I am very much opposed to your proposal.” “In contrast, the subordinate was adversarial toward his superior’s proposal.”

Healthy/healthful. “Healthy” has always meant “enjoying or having good health,” and the other “full of health” or “promoting good health.” Some advertisers, however, have lately been taking undue liberties with “healthy” in their product advertising, making absurd claims like this: “The healthy milk that’s good for you.” Don’t be taken in by the misguided semantic acrobatics; stick to “The healthful milk that’s good for you” to keep your prose sound and wholesome.

As always, when stumped by confusing words or phrases, don’t just hazard a guess as to what they mean. Eliminate all doubts by checking them with your dictionary. After all, your job as speaker or writer is not to share your confusion but to clarify things for your listeners or readers. (January 20, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 20, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. It may be the case that a second look at "Shifting from plastic to ceramic maybe a good alternative" may be a good idea. "Maybe" and "may be" mean the same thing? Maybe, but I don't believe so.