Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Words Often ConfusedL I. J. L.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of confusing words beginning with "I," "J" and "L.": impact/affect, effect; implement; imply/infer; importantly; incident; incredible/incredulous; insure/ensure; its/it's; judgment; lay/lie; liable/likely; like/as.

With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by the mistake.

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

"Impact/Affect": "Impact" is a heavy blow: "The impact on the building was like being hit by a freight train at full speed"; do not use in place of "affect" or "effect." "Impact" has become a favorite word of local media. And, of course, do not use "impacted." Ugh! RayS. (**)

"Implement": Whenever possible use some other term for this overused pompous piece of jargon: "fulfill," "accomplish," "do." (**)

"Imply/Infer": "Imply" suggests without stating directly; "infer" means to draw conclusions. Confusing "infer" for "imply" happens often. (***)

"Importantly": Sounds pompously important. Use "important." (**)

"Incident": Don't describe an event with serious consequences as an "incident." The term trivializes. Make the description fit the magnitude of the event: "Murder" is murder; "fatal accident." "Incident" is often used in newspapers to refer to murders and deadly accidents. (**)

"Incredible/incredulous": "Incredible" means "unbelievable"; "incredulous" means that you don't believe it. (***)

"Insure/ensure": Even I wasn't "sure" (pun) of this one. Took the explanation right from the NYT Manual of Style and Usage. "Insure" means to buy insurance. "Ensure" means to make certain. "He ensured his successful return." (*)

"Its/it's": The most frequent mistake in writing, according to the journal College Composition and Communication."Its" is possessive: "The dog licked its coat." "It's" = contraction: "It's ('It is') all right to leave." (***)

"Judgment": spelling. Remember it this way: "GM shows good judGMent." Thanks to Harry Shefter and Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling.

"Lay/lie": "Lay"; "laid"; has, have, had "laid" mean "put" or "place." They require a direct object. "He had laid IT on the the table." "Lie"; "lay"; has, have, had "lain" mean "rest or recline": "It has lain there for years." "It lay in ruins." If you can't keep these usages straight, write around them. "It was in ruins"; "It had been there for years." "Put it down on the table. [So many people who should know better misuse "lie" and "lay" that I'm beginning to think the distinction is useless. RayS.] (**)

"Liable/likely": "Liable" is for an unpleasant probability: "He is liable to be given jail time." "Likely" simply means that something is probably going to happen: "I think we are likely to see the sun sometime today." (**)

"Like/as": "Like" is a preposition followed by an object: "It was just like him to do that." "As" is a conjunction used in a clause (subject and verb): "As I said...." "Tell it as it is." [Gee, "Tell it like it is" has become so much a part of the language that the correct usage does not sound right. However, the misuse of the two words does jar in other contexts, i.e., "Like I was saying...."] (***)

(I think when I finish this series of "words frequently confused," I am going to mine the NYT Manual of Style and Usage for distinctions I never realized existed. I think you will find such a list entertaining.)

All the best. RayS.

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