First, be awake.

Conscious: Awake; aware and knowing that something exists.

Conscientious: “Governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience”; concerned with doing something correctly.

Before I can be conscientious about taking a specific action, I need to be conscious of the possibility. Here’s an example: Before I can be conscientious about recycling batteries, I need to know (be aware) that there are special rules in place for that. I can’t be concerned with following the rules until I know they exist.

First, I need to be conscious of the recycling statutes in my community.

Then, I need to be conscientious about adhering to those statutes.

I’m loath to admit I loathe most country music.

That ought to raise a few eyebrows, but at least it won’t be for poor diction. (Also: Honestly? I’m not in the least bit loath to make that admission. There. I said it.)

Loath is an adjective; it means “unwilling to do something because it’s disagreeable for some reason.” I’m loath to eat raw octopus because the texture is offensive to me.

The unabridged Merriam-Webster online dictionary indicates that (much to the frustration of many copy editors) “loathe” is an alternate spelling.

Why does that frustrate some of us? Because, you see, loathe is the verb.There is no alternate spelling for the verb. It’s loathe. That’s it. And it means “detest, abhor.” I loathe the fact that “loathe” is an alternative spelling for loath.

I may be loosening up a little more in my pragmatic grammarian stance, continuing my journey toward descriptivism, but I still loathe this particular situation.

Me, Myself, and I: Reflections on Reflexive Pronouns

Lately I have noticed a lot of people using “myself” when they should be using “me.”

“Join Jack Brown and myself for our next podcast about Venetian canal cleaning methods.”

Nope. Sorry, I won’t be joining yourself for anything. I’ll join YOU, though. The word you want in that position, as the object of the transitive verb “to join,” is me. “Join Jack Brown and me for our next podcast.”

How can you tell? Well, would you say “Join I for my next podcast” if you were talking about just yourself? I didn’t think so. (See “Me and Julio” for more on this.) You’d say “Join me.” It doesn’t change when you add more people to the sentence. “Join Jack Brown, Mary Smith, and me for our next podcast.”

So when should you use those reflexive pronouns like myself, yourself, and themselves?

When the action is reflected back onto a noun or pronoun, you probably want to show that by using a reflexive pronoun. Here’s what I mean.

Mary bought herself a dress.

Mary bought a dress for herself.

The action (buying a dress) is turned back toward the subject (Mary). If you feel better using the preposition, use it. But you don’t have to, as you can see from the original example sentence. Inserting the preposition like that is just a test to check for correctness.

That’s not the same as “Mary bought a dress for her.” Who’s her? It’s not Mary, I can tell you that much; “her” is an objective case pronoun, so Mary bought that dress for some other woman — not for herself.

To be really grammatically picky: “Herself” is the indirect object in these sentences. In the second, it’s also the object of the preposition “for.” The “for” is understood in the first sentence (it’s not there, but we understand that’s what is meant).

You can also use reflexive pronouns for emphasis. I always think of the Grinch:

“And the Grinch, he himself, the Grinch carved the roast beast.”

Or this one:

“They themselves were thrown clear of the crash and miraculously survived.”

“I had myself a nice little nap after dinner.”

Those are all legitimate uses.

But please, people — please stop with the “Join Jack and myself for this party.” You don’t sound erudite. You sound foolish.

 

A guy walks into a pizza . . .

. . . and swears, because now his shoes are a mess.

Should you use “into” or “in to?” Well, it depends. (It always depends, doesn’t it?)

You walk into a building, or into a room. You’re moving; you are changing your location from outside to inside.

However, if there’s a pizza in the room you walk into, you “walk in to a pizza.” You walk in to the presence of pizza (presumably on a table or counter, not the floor).

I will quote Garner, so you will know I’m not blowing smoke: “These prepositions aren’t ordinarily interchangeable, and care must be taken in choosing between them: in denotes position or location, and into denotes movement. Thus, a person who swims in the ocean is already there, while a person who swims into the ocean is moving from, say, the mouth of a river. There are many exceptions, however, especially with popular idioms <go jump in a lake>.” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, page 450)

Similarly, you might say “I ran in the mall last week,” meaning you went for a run inside the mall (one would hope the mall sets aside times for such activity, so you weren’t running over little old ladies with shopping bags). “I ran into the mall last week” means something entirely different. Did you “run into the mall” because someone was chasing you from the parking lot? Or did you “run into the mall” to pick up a last-minute gift for someone? I hope these examples help delineate which preposition to use. People “walking into donuts” are likely to have pretty crumby shoes (as opposed to “crummy” shoes, which aren’t the same thing at all).

Be discreet about your discrete affairs

Yes, folks, it’s another descent into #HomophoneHell this time. By request, even–you can thank my pal Deborah Bancroft over at Dispatches from Wordnerdia.

First, let me assure you that at this point in time, there’s no danger of these words becoming hopelessly confused to the point of losing one to the other. Not yet, anyway. Garner’s Modern American Usage categorizes the confusion of “discrete” for “discreet” as Stage 1 (just about everyone can recognize it’s an error), and the reverse as Stage 2 (becoming more common, but still not accepted in standard usage; while it might appear as a variant in a dictionary listing, that hardly condones the usage.) I’ll suggest that people are generally more familiar with “discreet,” and so tend to use that one instead of “discrete” more often than they do the opposite. (The majority of my personal experience with “discrete” occurred in high-school geometry class.)

Let me remind you at this juncture that a dictionary (any dictionary) provides a snapshot of usage at a specific moment in time (the copyright year). Just because something appears in a dictionary does not mean that thing is correct, necessarily; it means that thing is common enough to merit an entry. Depending on the dictionary, there could be a usage note attached to such an entry indicating that it’s nonstandard (or a variant or what have you). If you want to be sure of having information about proper usage, you need a usage manual. All right. Onward.

“Discrete” means “separate.” “Discreet” means “cautious, circumspect.” Indeed, they come from the same Latin word: discretus.  If you’re having several separate affairs, I suggest you be very cautious about discussing them with people lest they become intermingled (and thus neither discrete nor discreet).

As for a helpful mnemonic: The Es in “discrete” are separated by a T. Discrete = separate

.

Want to be discreet? Remember, three's a crowd.
Want to be discreet? Remember, three’s a crowd.

(image thanks to Morguefile.com)

Less or fewer? Can you count?

I’m not being snide. It’s about counting.

If you have items you can count, you need to use “fewer” to follow the standard usage guidelines. (What constitutes “standard” is up for much discussion, as any web search will readily confirm. I use it to mean “no one will look at you funny for using this, regardless of where you’re writing it.”) Those signs at the market that read “10 items or less” drive me batty, personally. I can count ten items. If I have fewer than 10, I’m okay. If I have eleven, I need to get in another line. (Unless the checker tells me it’s okay because there aren’t many people in the line.)

If you have an uncountable noun (like “intelligence” or “ability” or “music”), you need to use “less” to follow the standard guidelines. “John is less intelligent than Jake.” (John may have fewer IQ points. “Points” are countable. “Intelligence” is not.)

This job took less time than the last one.

This job took fewer hours than the last one.

“More” doesn’t have the same problem: You can have more time, and you can have more minutes. (English is fun, remember?)

Less art, fewer pictures.
Less art, fewer pictures.

“Amongst” or “among?” Honestly — it doesn’t matter. But . . .

My colleague Deb Bancroft asked me about this one a month or so ago. I’ve debated writing this long enough. I’m among friends, right?

“Amongst” is the older form of the word. There’s no difference in meaning between the forms, none whatsoever. “Among” is the same thing as “amongst.” My personal preference is for “among,” and as I often say: “Unless I’m reading Austen, I don’t want to see amongst in a book.” And for the most part that’s true.

However, if you’re writing a period piece and the older form makes better stylistic sense, by all means use it. If you’re writing a fantasy piece and you’ve chosen to use more archaic or even obsolete language as flavor for your characters’ speech, by all means use it.

Just don’t use it in your term paper about mitochondrial DNA, okay? Cool.

If your character might use these, then you might want "amongst."
If your character might use these, then you might want “amongst.”

Past due? You passed the deadline.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, because you’re smart people. Here’s another Homophone Hell pairing: past and passed. One’s a modifier or preposition or noun, the other a verb form. And as I was reminded late yesterday, they’re evil for some people. Let’s see if I can help.

Past can be a modifier, a preposition, or a noun. As a modifier, it can denote a time (“the past year,” where it’s an adjective because it modifies a noun) or a position of a verb (“a robin flew past the window,” an adverbial use telling us “where” as part of the prepositional phrase “past the window” modifying “flew”). As a preposition, it also denotes a position, but explains a time or place (“the shadows reached past the fence to the outer edge of the yard” [there’s that adverbial use again, telling “where”] or “be ready at half past eight”).

Passed is the past tense of the verb to pass. (Note “past” in “past tense” — an adjective use.) “She passed her classes with B’s and C’s this term.” “The car passed that semi illegally.” “He passed away last year from complications caused by an infection.”

I don’t have a handy, brief, catchy mnemonic, but I will leave you with this:

She was so busy writing about her past, the dinner hour passed her by.

Always. ALWAYS.
Always. ALWAYS.

 

She left him at the alter

Well, no. She left him at the altar.

This particular pair of homophones is one of the most troublesome, based on what I see come across my desk. Perhaps I can provide some helpful hints for telling them apart, so you’ll know which one you should be using in a given situation. We’ll see . . .

An altar is a raised surface, first of all. It could be a simple table, or a flat rock, or perhaps an elaborately constructed piece of furniture with storage space underneath, hidden behind doors or curtains. But I digress. An altar is a surface on which one puts ritual items, for the purpose of then enacting said ritual. I’ll wager most of you readers are familiar with the altar at the front of a church (Catholic, Protestant, doesn’t matter — churches have altars). I’ll also wager that a number of you are equally familiar with the pagan analog, usually set at the center of the ritual space. (Not that I’d know about that or anything . . . ::cough::) If you’re writing about a ritual, you’ll likely need to use the word altar.

Altar can be used figuratively, as well. They worship at the altar of freedom.

Alter is foremost a verb, meaning to change something. I say “foremost,” because there’s also the psychiatric usage meaning “a distinct and separate personality” when talking about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder [MPD]). She has fifty-four alters. However, unless you’re writing a piece on DID, you’ll probably be using the verb form and talking about something being altered. Think of “alterations” made to clothes by a tailor or a seamstress. They alter the clothing.

Alter is also the verb used to mean “to spay or neuter an animal.” The procedure changes the animal, so that it can no longer reproduce.

Alter is also the word in “alter ego,” meaning a different side of a personality or even a close friend who holds the same views as one’s own. It’s important to note, I think, that this is the common usage; we can all have alter egos, but not be diagnosed with DID. It literally means “second I.” Drinking brings out his alter ego; he’s quite the Jekyll and Hyde.

It will probably help to remember that “alter” is part of “alternative” and “alternate.” If you need a word that denotes change, something different from the expected, you want alter.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to alter my altar setup for the upcoming feast day.

It ain't fancy, but it's a mighty fine stone altar.
It ain’t fancy, but it’s a mighty fine stone altar.

[Expletive deleted]

Ha. Made you look, didn’t I?

This isn’t a post about those expletives, though. It’s a post about a different kind–the kind that’s a grammatical construction using a form of the verb “to be” along with “there” or “this” or “that” or “it” to start the sentence.

I’ve used it twice already, just to provide context.

I wrote about the passive voice and the “by zombies” test for it over at G+ some time back. Passive voice also uses forms of “to be” — but it’s not the same thing as the expletive construction. Here’s an example of passive voice:

The boy was chased through the graveyard.

“The boy” is the subject of the sentence. However, the boy isn’t performing the action; something or someone is doing the chasing. If we add “by zombies,” we can see that this is actually passive voice. Note that the meaning of the sentence does not change, nor do the forms of any words in the sentence. That’s the Zombie Test for passive voice. (See? Another example of expletive form.)

The boy was chased through the graveyard by zombies.

So how would this be written in expletive form, then?

There was a boy in the graveyard being chased by zombies.

It’s not nearly as exciting, is it. It’s even more boring than the passive construction. Here’s a link about expletive constructions and how to recast them. You’ll notice (if you click the link and read the article, that is) that even that website says “Most of the time expletive constructions . . . only add extra baggage to sentences.” And that’s true. Most of the time, they’re not the best choice. That’s especially true in nonfiction or academic writing. In fiction writing authors have more leeway, but should still be aware that overuse of this construction might slow the pace unnecessarily.

Zombies chased the boy through the graveyard.

or:

Zombies were chasing the boy through the graveyard. (We’re still in active voice here, just not in the simple past tense any longer.)

NOW we have a subject (zombies) acting on an object (the boy). While this is clearly an active-voice construction, it might not be the best choice for a given piece of work. Consider the type of writing you’re doing, the audience, and the intent of the work. If an expletive construction works best in a specific situation, there’s nothing wrong with using it. (LOOK! An expletive construction! “there’s nothing wrong with using it”)

I could recast that sentence: If an expletive construction works best in a specific situation, use it.

That rather defeats my purpose, though–I’m out to show you not only what that construction looks like, but also how it can be used. The point is expletive constructions have their place, and they can be used to good effect if used properly and sparingly.

That is our lesson for today. (Or I could say “That concludes our lesson for today” and avoid the expletive construction, using an active verb form instead. See? Easy. Honest.)