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Its a Good Idea to Be Careful When You Write -- Oops, Make That It's

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: Charles Harrington Elster, author of "The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly."

RS: It's full of examples, such as this common error.

Its a Good Idea to Be Careful When You Write -- Oops, Make That It's
Its a Good Idea to Be Careful When You Write -- Oops, Make That It's

CHARLES ELSTER: "What you need to remember is that 'its' indicates possession, without an apostrophe, i-t-s, and i-t-apostrophe-s is a contraction of it is. So if you realize that you are writing or saying 'it is' you need the apostrophe. When you do not intend to write 'it is,' then no apostrophe, it's the possessive pronoun its."

RS: "The problem with its and it's also is that they sound the same, as 'your' and 'you're' and 'there' and 'their.' What is your suggestion for words that may sound alike but are spelled differently and have very different meanings?"

CHARLES ELSTER: "Unfortunately you have to learn them by rote. You have to memorize or perhaps use a mnemonic device, a memory aid. I offer some sentences as mnemonic devices in the book so that you can remember that t-h-e-r-e indicates a place, 'over there,' and that t-h-e-i-r indicates possession, 'their feelings,' and t-h-e-y-apostrophe-r-e, whenever you see that apostrophe in the middle of a word, you know it's a contraction, so it's got to be 'they are.'"

AA: "What about the confusion between infer and imply? A lot of people get that wrong."

CHARLES ELSTER: "A lot of people do confuse infer and imply. The best way to remember that distinction, I think, is to remember that when you imply you are making a suggestion. You are like the baseball pitcher throwing something out, you're hinting or suggesting -- you're pitching the baseball. When you infer, you come to a conclusion or you make a deduction. Therefore you are like the baseball catcher. You are catching that suggestion or that statement and you are making a deduction or a conclusion from it."

RS: Another common error, says Charles Elster: irregular verbs that are misconjugated.

CHARLES ELSTER: "I can't tell you how often I hear college-educated native speakers of English, even advanced degree people, lawyers, say 'I could have ran,' 'I should have went,' 'I would have drank.' They know that you 'run' in the present and that you 'ran' in the past, so they try to regularize the verb a little bit and say 'I have ran' as a past participle when it still needs to remain irregular and has to be 'I have run.' I drink, I drank and I have drunk, not 'I have drank.'"

RS: "Then there's the confusion between affect and effect.'

CHARLES ELSTER: "You have to remember that affect with an a is chiefly the verb. That's going to be the verb you need most of the time. When something has an effect on something else, it affects, with an a. Effect with an e is chiefly a noun. So when something has an effect, it's going to have an effect. So affect, a, verb. Effect, noun, e. Occasionally effect with an e will be used as a verb. You 'effect change.' That's with an e. But that's much less common than affect the verb with an a."

AA: "And tell us what you have against irregardless."

CHARLES ELSTER: "Irregardless is probably the most famous, what you might call non-word in the language. Of course, it is a word because lots of people have used it, and so you'll even find it in English dictionaries -- hopefully labeled nonstandard, which means not good to use. All you have to say is regardless."

RS: "Do you have a particular something in your book, or the accident, every time you see it that just makes you cringe?"

CHARLES ELSTER: "If I had to choose one accident that grates more than any other, it's when people say, thinking they're being hypercorrect, 'between you and I' or 'for you and I.' That 'I' is wrong. It should not be a nominative pronoun. It should be the objective pronoun, 'between you and me,' 'for you and me.' Nobody would say 'for you and I.' It's 'for me' and 'between you and me.'"

AA: Charles Elster is the author of "The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly."

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. You can find a lot more advice at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble. And, by the way, 'a lot' is two words -- a lot.


Adapted from "The Accidents of Style" (St. Martin's Press):

1. Don’t say or write between (for, to) you and I

The nominative pronoun I must be the subject of a sentence. It should not follow a preposition such as between, for, or to. After a preposition, use the objective pronouns me: between (for, to) you and me. It should also be between (for, to) him and me, or between (for, to) her and me, with the pronouns as objects of the preposition. The commonly heard between he and I and for she and I are wrong.

2. You don’t just graduate, you graduate from

She graduated Yale is inferior English. You may say She graduated in 1981, but when the name of an institution is part of the construction, from should follow the verb: She graduated from Yale in 1981.

3. Proper distinction between convince and persuade

To convince is to make someone believe something. You convince people of the truth or convince them that you’re right. To persuade is to make someone take action. You persuade someone to do something. To may follow persuade but should not follow convince. “They will convince him to do it” is inferior English. Make it persuade.

4. It’s home in, not hone in

To hone is to sharpen. To home in on is to seek out, focus on. Think of a homing device homing in on its target.

5. It’s as best, not as best as

You do something as best you can, not as best as you can. The second as is unnecessary.

6. Proper use of less and fewer

Remember that less refers to amounts and fewer to things that can be counted or considered individually. You can have less time, less trouble, or less money, but fewer minutes, fewer problems, and fewer pennies. The express lanes in most American grocery stores have signs that say 10 Items or Less, which is wrong. It should be 10 Items or Fewer or No More Than 10 Items.

7. Don’t write in regards to or with regards to

You may close a letter with Regards and you may send your regards. But the phrases in regards to and with regards to are not standard English. The standard forms are in regard to and with regard to. However, it’s smoother and less stuffy to write regarding, concerning, or about, or simply to begin with your subject. Instead of In regard to your letter of July 4, write In your letter of July 4.

8. Proper distinction between farther and further

Farther properly refers only to physical distance (they drove farther east, hit the ball farther), while further should refer to figurative distance (move things further along, nothing could be further from the truth). Further may also mean “more, additional” or “to a greater extent or degree” (further review, we will discuss it further).

9. Don’t continue on or proceed on

To continue and to proceed mean “to go on,” so there’s no need to continue on or proceed on. The preposition is unnecessary.

10. With the number and a number, watch the number of your verb

The phrase the number—with the definite article the—always takes a singular verb: “The number of women arrested for driving drunk is on the rise.” The phrase a number—with the indefinite article a—always takes a plural verb: “A number of schools in the area are renovating or building with eco-friendly methods.”