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 "s": sacrilegious; shine/shined/shone; split infinitive; stanch/staunch; subjunctive; supine/prone. Today's session contains two particularly tricky pieces of usage: the split infinitive and the subjunctive. Difficult to explain, that is.
"Sacrilegious": Does not contain the word "religious." Again, I use Harry Shefter's Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling: "You RILE me with your sacRILEgious ideas." (***)
Shine, shined, shone: Use "shined" with a direct object: "He shined the flashlight on the house." "Flashlight" is the direct object of "shined." Shined what? "Flashlight." Without the object, use "shone": "The sun shone only once this week." Thanks to the NYT Manual of Style and Usage. I didn't know that! RayS. (*)
Split infinitive. "To" with a verb is called an infinitive: "to run," etc. To put a word between the "to" and the verb is called a "split infinitive," cursed by many a grammar purist: "to better prepare...." If the split infinitive sounds smooth, use it. Don't make an awkward construction in order to un-split the infinitive. When in doubt, write around it: "I can improve my preparation by...." A matter of judgment. (**)
Stanch = stop the flow (usually of blood); staunch = firm and resolute. (***)
The subjunctive means "contrary to fact." "I wish I were...." "As if he were...." "I wish..." and "As if..." are almost always followed by "were." The problem is with "If." If "if" means contrary to fact, use "were": "If he were here, we'd know the answer." If "if" is a statement of fact, use the singular past tense, "was." "He asked if she was going on vacation this month." If you're not sure, write around it: "I wish I could go with you" instead of "I wish I were going with you." You'll have to use some fast thinking, if you're using the subjunctive when speaking. (***)
"Supine" means lying on the ground face up; "prone" means lying on the ground face down. Once again, thanks to the NYT Manual of Style and Usage. I did not know the distinction existed. I do remember that in the army, "Assume the prone position" meant "Hit the dirt with your rifle ready to fire." (*)
All the best. RayS.