One of the hardest parts about the English language is the prominence of words that sound the same, or very similar, yet mean different things. My recent favorite is “there,” “their” and “they’re.” If you read these to someone and they can’t see them printed on the page, they will have no idea which meaning is intended without some additional context.
Another pair of words that I have recently seen used incorrectly is “ensure” and “insure.” At first glance, these two words are so similar. They may only differ by one letter, but that little change can make a big difference.
Both of these words can have the concept of securing or guaranteeing something behind their meaning, but again, the context is important. When using “insure” you are generally be speaking about something financial. You pay to insure your car or home against damage. You pay to insure yourself against costly health issues. In general, anything pertaining to the insurance industry will use “insure.”
On the other hand, “ensure” should be used when you are guaranteeing something will happen. “The girl sang well enough to ensure herself a spot on American Idol.” You are essentially saying that an event is a certainty because of some other action.
Now you know, and knowing…well GI Joe probably has the rest of that copyrighted.
Perhaps it’s the English nerd in me, but this is one of my biggest pet peeves in terms of misuse of the English language. So many people speak the phrase “I could care less” in the wrong context, assuming it is correct because that is how they have heard it used in the past. But let’s take a closer look at this statement.
Most of the time, people should be stating “I couldn’t care less.” They use the phrase above to indicate that the degree to which they care is so small, that it could not possibly be any less, which is to say that they don’t care at all.
Let’s briefly look at this in math terms. Assume for a moment that you are a sports nut and the last thing that you care about in the world is reading a book. On a scale of 0 to 100, your level of caring about sports is around a 95 while your level of caring about reading a book is an absolute 0.
If you’re reading this and realizing that you’ve been using this phrase incorrectly until now, I forgive you. Go ahead and forgive yourself too. Part of fixing the problem is admitting that you have one in the first place.
But please make sure you DO fix it. I couldn’t care MORE about you doing this. (See what I did there?) Every time you hear yourself start to say “I could care less,” think about my example above and make sure that’s what you mean. If it’s accurate, go for it. But if you really mean that you can’t care any less, then say that instead. Share your new found insight with your friends and once they see it, they’ll think you’re a genius…or maybe just an English nerd.
Writing is hard. Anyone who has ever sat down at a computer (or typewriter or blank sheet of paper) knows that it can be a daunting task to set your ideas down in writing. Because of the difficulty of the task, many people often fall back on comfortable words and phrases to help them get by.
One step to fine tuning your writing is to figure out what words you rely on when you don’t know what else to say, find them in your writing and eliminate them. Here are three common ones that I have seen in writing:
Poor Miss Teen South Carolina (Caitlin Upton) didn't have the benefit of being able to write down her statement and see how silly it looks/sounds. Anyone listening to her response and having even the slightest knowledge of the English language would be appalled. That’s why I highly recommend reading your writing out loud. By verbalizing the text, you will be able to hear things that are repetitive and may not sound as good as when you wrote them.
Of course, you literally could just such as ignore my advice…
Regardless of what you’re writing, always pay attention to your tone. Your graduate school thesis is a much different piece of writing than the short story you wrote in third grade about the bunny that lost his way and the tone of each piece of writing should reflect the audience for which it is intended. Finding that voice can sometimes be difficult but when you do, your writing will become much more effective and engaging to your readers.
As you begin to write, make sure you are keeping your audience in mind. The more you do this at the beginning of your project, the easier it will be down the road to make sure your tone remains consistent. If you feel like getting into the numbers of it, take a few minutes to review my post a few weeks back about Writing in Plain English. Regardless of your comfort level with numbers and analytics, this handy tool can help give you a rough idea how understandable your writing is for your intended audience.
One more test that may work even better to judge the tone of your writing is to find someone in your target audience (and whose judgment you can trust) and simply give them the piece to read. They should be able to clearly understand the writing but also not feel like they are reading well below their comprehension level.
Find the perfect voice and tone for your writing and stick with it. As long as you maintain your consistency, people will begin to trust what you have to say.
I was playing around in MS Word the other day and noticed an option to include readability statistics when doing a spelling and grammar check. I decided to mark the box and see what happened.
A little to my surprise I fewer misspellings that I had anticipated, many thanks to the autocorrect function in Word for that. I also received a little window that gave me a “readability score” (in the mid 60s) and a “grade level” (nearly 8th grade!) for my document. I didn't entirely understand the meaning of these numbers or what scale they should be judged against, something Microsoft might want to incorporate into their programming when they are provided, so I went online to find out more.
The name associated with the numbers was Flesch. I quickly came upon an article by Rudolf Flesch on the website of the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) titled How to Write Plain English. Apparently Mr. Flesch developed a formula for figuring out the readability of any piece of English language writing and placing it on a scale. Regardless of what you are writing, there is something in here for everyone. If you’re writing young adult novels, this formula can help you determine if you’re writing to old or young for the average reader in the ages you are targeting. If you have a piece of writing and the readability score comes back in the teens or single digits, you probably need to find some time to edit as soon as possible.
I can hear you asking already, how can language be distilled down into a formula? It can’t. We can however use this formula as a tool for guiding us in our writing. Something as complicated as language can never be measured simply like numbers but the more information we have about our writing, the better off we will be.
Check out Flesch’s entire article. And while you’re at it, browse around the rest of the University of Canterbury’s website. I always find it interesting to see what sites look like for places around the world.
In the words of the great Jedi Master Yoda, “make one smart, using big words does not.”
OK, maybe he never actually said that, but if he had been a high school English teacher, I like to think he might have.
The point I’m trying to make is that simply using a big word in your writing (or in conversation for that matter) doesn't make you the smartest person in the room. Oftentimes when people use big words with many syllables, it has the opposite effect from what was intended. Big words used unnecessarily can clog up the conversation and interrupt the flow ending up with the key thoughts being lost.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for big words but you must make absolutely certain that it is needed. Unless you’re being graded on the size and complexity of your words, keep it simple to make sure you get your point across.
Perhaps Yoda would complete the thought with this…”Make one smart, using big words does not. When used correctly, powerful any word can become.”
Photo Credit: Asif Akbar via sxc.hu
One of the most common grammatical mistakes I see people make it misusing “its,” “it’s,” and “its’.” I can understand the confusion and honestly it is sometimes hard to determine which one is correct so I hope this brief overview can help clear up the confusion.
Photo Credit: Maxime Perron Caissy via sxc.hu
Everyone wants to sound smart. Being smart can help you get ahead in the world but being smart and using big words do not necessarily go together.
Take a look at the previous short paragraph. The longest word was “necessarily” and I would argue that nothing in those two sentences was very fancy. You can find all of those words in normal conversation. Using common words makes the reading easy to understand and quickly gets the point across.
Let me try to re-write that first paragraph in a way that tries to “sound smart”:
We have all heard the saying “addition by subtraction.” I propose a new saying here; “addition by simplification.” Complication is sometimes just that and ends up confusing the reader. Remember this simple rule: “If I need a thesaurus to find the right word, chances are the reader will need a dictionary to figure out my meaning.”
Jonathan Ytreberg is the owner of Best Word Forward, committed to providing the best resume advice and services to clients around the globe.