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‘Pitfalls careful speakers and writers should watch out for’

A Word, Please

The English language is confusing. There’s no denying it. When you have nearly identical words like adverse and averse competing for space in your memory with nearly identical punctuation marks like the apostrophe and the single quotation mark, it’s no wonder people make mistakes.

Even the most careful users of the language — folks who never mix up possessive “its” with the contraction “it’s” — can stumble. Here are a few of the many pitfalls careful speakers and writers should watch out for.

Errant and arrant

“This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!” Winston Churchill gets credit for that clever rant against the idea you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition as I did in the last paragraph with “watch out for.”

But the rule is fake. And so, apparently, is the quotation attribution. Scholars now believe it wasn’t Churchill who said that at all.

Either way, it’s good to know such pedantry is arrant, meaning extreme or without moderation, and not errant, meaning straying outside the proper path or bounds.

Adverse and averse

Some things just won’t stay in my head, no matter how hard I try to pound them in there.

Case in point: Just the other day I said “I’m not adverse to” something (I forget what). That’s far from ideal. “If you want to describe a negative reaction to something (such as a harmful side effect from medication) or dangerous meteorological conditions (such as a snowstorm), ‘adverse’ is the correct choice,” writes Merriam-Webster’s. “‘Averse’ is most commonly followed by the preposition ‘to’ (as in ‘she is averse to shellfish’).” So “averse” is the one I wanted.

Jive, jibe and gibe

I’ve given up saying, “Her story doesn’t jibe” because I have trouble resisting the urge to say “jive” instead. That would be embarrassing. “Jive,” as a verb, means “to talk in a foolish, deceptive, or unserious way,” as so many turkeys did on TV in the 1970s. The verb “jibe” means “to be in agreement with.”

So when someone’s story doesn’t add up, it doesn’t jibe with the facts. Enter “gibe” to throw us another curveball. It means to utter taunting words, to deride or to ridicule.

Dictionaries permit a certain amount of crossover between these words. For example, “jibe” is listed in the dictionary as a variant form of “gibe.” But if you don’t want to endure gibes from readers, keep these words separate.

Apostrophe and closing

quotation mark

If you’re dropping a letter from a word, for example in character dialogue like, “It was really somethin’,” the apostrophe is like a letter attached to the rest of the word, so a comma or period would never come before it.

Alternatively, if you’re putting quoted matter inside a quotation, like “Don’t call me ‘muffin,'” the last word is followed by a punctuation mark that looks like the apostrophe but is actually a closing quotation mark.

A comma or period comes before it. And if that’s not enough to make your brain hurt, here’s how you’d combine the two: “Don’t call me a ‘big nuthin’,'”: apostrophe, comma, single quote mark, double quote mark, in that order.

Semicolon and colon

In my experience, errors occur in waves. I don’t recall ever seeing someone use a semicolon as a colon until perhaps a year ago.

Now semicolons are introducing lists everywhere I look: In my editing work, in my pleasure reading, in my social media feeds. Imagine a semicolon in place of a colon in that last sentence and you’ll see what I mean.

Semicolons don’t introduce lists the way colons can. Their job is to connect unwieldy items, especially list items with internal commas, like: Jones family members Louise, Ellen and Ray; Gomez family members Danielle, Joe and Henry; and Cummings family members Erin and Robert.

They can also be used to connect two otherwise freestanding sentences you want to combine into a single sentence; this is an example.

A colon can introduce this important thought: Don’t use a semicolon to do a colon’s job.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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