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Good Morning Nanty Glo!
        Wednesday, April 28 2004

Jon Kennedy, webmaster

The top five

A newspaper article yesterday contained a mistake that put a new flame under a long-simmering idea for a Jonal postcard that I've been putting off. Some will probably dislike this just because it brings up the subject of English usage, and if so, you may want to stop now. But as a teacher of writing courses and seminars for much of my life (part time and sporadically) I enjoy both thinking about such topics and imparting the information to others. Today's topic: the top five usage mistakes I see in everyday writing. I hasten to preface this by stressing that I don't have anyone in mind in this, don't mean to embarrass anyone, and am not grinding an ax. Also, I'd be disappointed if anyone decided because of this not to write to the Home Page list or to send in a feature or letter for the Forum letters department. And the mistake I saw yesterday was something that I might have made myself in haste or preoccupied inattention; such errors happen to every writer, I'm sure, having edited the writing of thousands of writers over the years and finding such virtually everywhere.

The newspaper article mistook "complimentary" with "complementary," mentioning that someone had been given a "complementary meal." A complimentary meal, meaning "with our compliments," would be a free meal. A "complementary meal," if we were stretching the definitions, might be a meal complementing (meaning "completing" or "standing alongside") something else, maybe a free meal for the children in your party if the adults are paying full price for theirs. More aptly, a "complementary wine" would not be a free one, but a red alongside steak and white accompanying fish.

With no more ado, these are the most common errors in usage that I see:

1. Hyphenation faults. For probably 25 years now, words constructed with a prefix, like "multi," and a noun, like "layer," or a verb form like "faceted" get no hyphen; it's multilayer, not multi-layer; multifaceted, not multi-faceted. Even more common and "wrong" is the omission of a required hyphen in compounds, when two whole words, especially when one of them is a verb or verb form and the compound is used as a noun or modifier: self-propelled vehicles; home-schooled pupils, and seemingly endless variations. The exception is adverbs that end in "ly" in the first half: "softly falling snow" is never hyphenated because of the "ly."

2. Failing to discriminate between singular and plural possessives."The Johnsons' vacation" must have the apostrophe after the final "s" because the reference is to all the Johnsons and they all "possess" their vacation. If one of your colleagues is always referred to as "Johnson," and he goes on vacation alone, it's proper to refer to "Johnson's vacation," or "Mr. Johnson's vacation," but in that case there would be no "the," which sets up your reader for a plural construction.

3. Assuming that plural forms of proper nouns require an apostrophe. "He drank two Cokes," not "Coke's." Only when the plural is added to an acronym, like "the ABC's" is the apostrophe considered helpful for constructing the plural.

4. Comma faults. This was the number one offense in my college days, but I think it has slipped. Now the most common comma fault is omitting the required comma after an introductory adverb or adverbial clause or phrase: "However, I won't try to persuade you if you've made up your mind." However (in the previous sentence but not here) is an adverb introducing that sentence. Other examples: On the other hand, In other words, After all we've been through, Therefore, and so on. "On," "In" and "After" are prepositions, not adverbs, but the whole phrases stand as adverbial constructions modifying the predicate of the sentences they introduce.

5. Semicolon faults. There are a variety of semicolon errors, but the most common is assuming that a semicolon is a "softer" form of a colon (the name is misleading) rather than a "harder" form of a comma, which is its proper form. Two independent clauses should be connected by a semicolon if "and" doesn't work: "She knew her husband was cheating; she just knew it." Either of those clauses could be a complete sentence, but "and" wouldn't be an appropriate way of connecting them.

6. Bonus: Writing the possessive of "it" as "it's." It should be "its." Only when "it is" is meant should an apostrophe be inserted in "it's."

I meant to make this "the top ten," but knew the space would be well exceeded by only half that many. If anyone's interested, maybe some other time we'll continue.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy 

Kids in church

Three-year-old Reese: "Our Father, Who does art in heaven, Harold is His name. Amen."

— Sent by Mary Ann Losiewicz 

Thought for today

No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.

— Mark Twain (1866)
Sent by Trudy Myers 

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