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Learning the English Language

Mar 01, 2017 04:35PM ● Published by Makayla Gay

By Dr. Henry T. Price

Writing Expert, Sam E. McCuen and Associates

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain

When historians look back at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, they might well decide to call it the “Age of Infrastructures.” Everything, or at least everything that matters in the world of business, seems to have one.

Infrastructures are so important that we ignore them – at our peril, because economic activity is dependent on various infrastructures. It’s surprising that the word hasn’t been linked to global warming.

It’s equally surprising that only lately have we begun to realize that how we communicate with others also involves an infrastructure and that language is its foundation. We are rediscovering a simple fact: Good writing is good business.

English is a powerful language, but it’s hard to learn. Every time you put your words on paper or in a computer message, people are judging how well you learned it.

Its grammar isn’t all that difficult, but it has a lot more words in it than do many other languages. It’s filled with words that mean the same thing or almost the same thing, and it has words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings and are pronounced differently. Then there are the words that sound alike, but are spelled differently.

Those of us who were born into English should have a great deal of sympathy for those who take it on as a second language. Of course, they often know our language better than we do because they actually study it and think about it.

When we concern ourselves about choosing exactly the right word for a sentence and distinguishing among words that are often confused, we are dealing with usage. What follows are just a few of the words and phrases that we often misuse.

affect/effect: “Affect” is the verb, and “effect” is the noun, except in certain special and rare situations.

aggravate/irritate: “Aggravate” means to make worse; you can “aggravate” an “irritation.”

all-around: Use all-round; “around” refers to position regarding a circle; “round” means full or complete.

alumni: “Alumni” refers to men and women who have attended a school and requires a plural verb; “alumnus” refers to a man, and “alumna” refers to a woman. A car with a “USC Alumni” sticker on it should have in it, or belong to, two or more people who attended USC.

any one/anyone: “Any one” means a single person or thing; “anyone” means any one at all.

as/like: “As” is a conjunction that introduces clauses; “like” is a preposition and requires an object. The ad slogan should have said: “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.”

because of/due to: “Because of” implies a cause and effect relationship. There are certain sentence constructions where “due to” can mean the same thing, but they are rare. The best approach is to use “due to” where there is a sense of time passing. “The train was due to arrive at 8 a.m., but it did not because of a derailment.”

Daylight Savings Time: There’s no such thing as a bank for saving daylight; it’s Daylight Saving Time.

first annual: A thing’s not annual until you have it the second time — and in another year.

hike: A “hike” is a special kind of walk; don’t use it to mean “increase.”

hopefully: “Hopefully” means in a hopeful manner (Hopefully, he took a step forward.”; don’t use it when you mean “I hope” (I hope I’ll get a raise.”)

lion’s share: The “lion’s share” means the whole thing and not “most” of something. If the lion leaves anything at all, it’s just because it didn’t want the rest.

livid: A person who is “livid” is angry and is ashen or pallid, not red; it can also be used to describe the discoloration of a bruise.

underway: “Under way” is almost always two words; the only thing that gets “underway” is a ship.

who’s/whose: “Who’s” is always and only the contraction for “who is” or “who has”; “whose” is the possessive of “who.” The same is true for “you’re” and “your,” which are commonly mixed up by today’s writers.

There are a lot more of these common mistakes in usage and confused words.  Get a copy of Working With Words by Brian Brooks, and find out what they are.                           

Dr. Price is a writing expert with Sam E. McCuen and Associates and retired as interim dean of the then College of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at 803-776-5565 or by email at

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