Tag Archives: writing

Are you content or contented?

Content is one of those words that can be pronounced in two different ways, depending on the meaning.

Content (pron. CON-tent), meaning “the things that are held, included, or provided” (as in “The wine’s alcohol content is listed on the label”), is often used in the plural:

The table of contents is part of the book’s front matter.

The contents of this blog are suitable for minors.

Content (pron. kən-TENT), meaning “satisfied,” can be used as a noun (“After I leave, you can sleep to your heart’s content!”), an adjective (“I’m content here.”), or a verb (“The show was sold out, so we had to content ourselves with a trip to the planetarium.”).

Contented is an adjective (meaning “satisfied,” as above, or “feeling or expressing satisfaction”):

“They don’t have chocolate ice cream. You will have to be contented with vanilla.”

Contentment is the state of being contented.

So when would you use content, and when would you use contented?

The words are synonymous, but according to Bryan A. Garner,* content is more common as a predicate adjective (“I am content just sitting here.”) and the adjective contented commonly precedes a noun (“The contented puppy fell asleep.”).

Adverb forms are contently and contentedly:

He lived contentedly among the natives.

The sheep were contently grazing in the pasture.

 

* Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

discrete or discreet?

Discrete and discreet are both adjectives. The pronunciation is the same, and the spelling is similar, so they are easily confused.

Discrete means distinct and separate, whereas discreet means “intentionally unobtrusive” and inconspicuous or careful and circumspect (in speech or behavior).

Synonyms include subdued and understated for the first meaning of discreet and prudent for the second.

Examples

discrete

Discrete segments of the population have been identified as part of the study’s methodology.

The chronon has been proposed as a discrete and indivisible unit of time.

discreet

The discreet lighting and cozy furnishings helped me relax as I braced myself for a difficult conversation.

The discreet packaging gives no indication of the contents.

These different meanings are also reflected in the adverbs discretely and discreetly.

Time can be measured discretely or continuously.

John asked Chris a series of personal questions, knowing that a camera was discreetly recording their interaction.

They’d been meeting discreetly for over a year before I learned about their relationship.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

shined or shone?

The verb* to shine can mean:

♦ to emit or reflect light (The sun is shining.)

♦ to be eminent, conspicuous, or distinguished (When she’s onstage, she really shines.)

♦ to be evident or clear (The truth will shine through.)

In the above examples, shine is used as an intransitive verb (v.i.); the verb does not have a direct object. Shine can also be a transitive verb (v.t.), meaning:

♦ to light or direct a light (“Shine that light over here, would ya?”)

♦ to make bright by polishing (“Please iron my shirts and shine my shoes.”)

In these instances, “something” (the object) is being shined (light; shoes).

Or should that be shone?

Shined and shone are sometimes used interchangeably (i.e., neither is incorrect), especially when used as an intransitive verb (and especially in the U.S.):

The light shone in the distance.

The light shined in the distance.

Most commonly, shone is preferred as the past tense (and past participle) of the intransitive verb shine when referring to something that is luminous.

The moon shone brightly.

Multitalented, Mark shone in many different capacities.

The flashlight shone when Sue turned it on.

Shined is used when polishing or shining an object (transitive verb).

He has shined a light on corruption within the agency.

Sue shined the flashlight on the intruder.

I shined my shoes until they shone.

Usage outside of the United States may differ.

*Shine can also be a noun. (“Would you like a shine, mister?”)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

anytime or any time?

Languages evolve. New words and expressions gain acceptance; hyphens get added and then dropped as two words merge into one. (Search online for “step-daughter” and you will find two words (step daughter), a hyphenated version (step-daughter), and one word (stepdaughter).)

Which version you choose depends, in part, upon where you live, what you are writing, and where your writing will be published. If you are writing a blog post and you live in the United States, your readers probably won’t think twice about stepdaughter or step-daughter, and they’ll understand “step daughter” (though I’d advise against that choice). If you are submitting your work, follow the preferences of your editor or publisher on style matters, especially if the work will be published in different markets (e.g., North America or United Kingdom).

Two-word compounds tend to get hyphenated before they get merged, so if the unhyphenated version has made its way into a reputable dictionary (e.g., stepdaughter), then that is likely the most up-to-date choice, with step-daughter an acceptable variant. (Wellbeing, as one word, has not yet become standard in North America; the preferred form is well-being. Back seat, when used as an adjective, may be either hyphenated or merged: “Don’t be a backseat driver.”)

One word or two, back seat and backseat have the same meaning. Hyphenated or not, step-daughter and stepdaughter refer to the same person. In other instances, however, the meaning changes when two words are merged into one. Consider some time and sometime:

“I need some time to figure out what I want to write about.” (Here, “some” could easily be omitted; it could also be replaced with “more”: “I need more time.”)

“I’ll get around to finishing that novel sometime.” (Here, “someday” could be substituted for “sometime.”)

Similarly, “any” time can refer to a quantity or amount of time:

“I haven’t had any time this week to work on my project.”

“I haven’t had anytime this week to work on my project.” X

Anytime, an adverb, is a variation of any time and is often used in casual conversation and correspondence:

“This rain isn’t going to let up anytime soon.”

“Call me anytime, day or night.”

If I were writing an advertising slogan that included anywhere, then anytime might be the better stylistic choice:

Our experts are ready to help you—anytime, anywhere.

Anytime can also be used to mean “whenever”:

“Anytime I see an error, I point it out.” (“Whenever I see an error, I point it out.”)

(I consider this use of anytime informal, too. More accurately, I am saying: “Every time I see an error, I point it out.”)

“Anytime” is sometimes given as a response to “Thank you”:

“Thanks for the lift.”

“Anytime. Glad I could help.”

The two-word form is preferable in formal communications:

“I can see you any time next week, but this week my schedule is full.”

Always use the two-word form following the preposition at.

“If, at any time, you feel uncomfortable, please notify one of the assistants.”

“You can close your account at any time if you are not satisfied with the service.”

Take time to think about your intended meaning and ensure that your words reflect your intentions.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A few examples of the past tense of regular and irregular verbs

In English, the simple past tense of regular verbs usually ends in –ed. Sometimes, –ed is added to the present tense form:

You play the piano very well.

I played basketball in high school.

(Or, if the verb ends in e, then only a –d is required to form the past tense: I like to dance./She danced until dawn.)

Other times, a change in spelling is required:

“Please control yourself!”

“Laura controlled the business until her death.”

“Can you identify the assailant?”

“John identified the problem.”

The rules are different for irregular verbs; in some cases, a –d or a –t is added to the simple present (root or base) form:

“If I can hear it, it’s too loud.”

“I heard the news on the radio.”

“I mean what I say.”

“I meant to send this last week.”

“Just deal the cards!”

“Let me tell you how I dealt with that problem.”

This “t-form” sometimes requires a change in spelling, such as dropping a vowel: feel (felt), creep (crept), keep (kept).

For some verbs, the past tense can be formed with either –t or –ed:

“Don’t leap for joy until the official announcement is made.”

He leaped at the opportunity.

She leapt across the stage.

Burn Jim’s papers, as he requested.”

Sue burned the pan.

“My hand got burnt in the fire.”*

Similarly, the past tense of dream can be formed with –ed or with –t:

“I never dreamed he would take my advice!”

Larry dreamt about the war for years.

“I dreamed about you last night.”

Brian dreamt up a scheme that just might work.

The preferred form of a word sometimes changes over time and varies by region. As a writer, you may prefer the –t form in some contexts and the –ed form in others. Be consistent in your usage throughout the same piece!

 

* In the U.S., burnt is more commonly used as an adjective:

The priest chanted over the burnt offering.

“I don’t like burnt toast.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

affect and effect

Both affect and effect can be used as nouns or as verbs, though affect is most commonly used as a verb (to act upon or influence). The effect is the result produced.

affect

(verb): Will the drought affect the price of food?

The disorder affected his ability to perform his job.

The loss affected her deeply.

(noun): Blunted affect is often a sign of depression.

(Note that the pronunciation differs when affect refers to an emotional or psychological state.)

effect:

(noun): The effect of the drug was immediate.

Many drugs have side effects.

The special effects were spectacular!

The law will go into effect next year.

A tornado watch is in effect until midnight.

(verb): Therapy is designed to effect change.

Related:

affected

(adjective): Apply the ointment to the affected area.

Her kindness is sincere, not affected.

(This last use is similar to affectation (noun): Her affectations fooled no one.)

effective

(adjective): The new policy is effective immediately.

His methods are effective.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

immigrate/emigrate

“Immigration” is a hot topic in the news these days. A country’s immigration policy determines who may lawfully enter the country to live and work.

An immigrant is a person who has moved from another country.* (Note that the term does not denote legal status; an immigrant may have entered the country legally or illegally.)

Immigrate is the verb form, describing the action of immigrating.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States before I was born.

Migrate is a related word.

The Pilgrims migrated to North America to establish a new colony.

Migration, however, pertains more to geography than to politics and borders. (A person might migrate to a different region in search of work, for example.)

The miners migrated west in their search for gold.

Migration often refers to seasonal travel or movement.

The annual whale migration has begun.

Not all birds migrate.

A migrant is one who migrates, whether human or animal. Migrant is often used when referring to workers who are not living in a permanent residence during their employment.

Migrant farm workers are also known as migratory agricultural workers.

An emigrant is a person who has left his or her country of residence to settle elsewhere.

His parents emigrated from Germany to avoid persecution.

In short, you are an immigrant to your new country; you are an emigrant from your old country.

Many young men emigrated from the United States to Canada to avoid the draft.

My parents immigrated to the United States after they were married.

I plan to emigrate next year.

I immigrated last year.

 

*Immigrant can refer a person who relocates to a new country or to a plant or animal “that becomes estalished in an area where it was previously unknown.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

If I were . . .

singlenote

In my last post, I noted that song lyrics can stick in our heads and, thereby, teach us about language (or encourage bad habits). Fans of musical theater will know the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick). Is the title grammatically correct, or should it be, instead, “If I Was a Rich Man”? Without getting too technical, let’s review the correct use of hypothetical (“if”) statements and the subjunctive mood.*

Verbs can be used to state a fact (the indicative mood), issue a command (the imperative mood), ask a question (interrogative mood), note a condition (conditional mood), or describe a wish, possibility, or hypothetical situation (subjunctive mood). (See the Oxford Dictionary for examples of each.)

Use were (the subjunctive mood) when imagining what might happen:

If I were to propose marriage, what would your answer be? (I might propose, if I could be absolutely certain that you would say yes. Or, I might just want to know how you feel about me and what you think about the idea of marrying me, and I have no intention of proposing!)

Use was (the indicative mood) for statements of fact (what actually happened).

If she was unpopular, it was not because she was unlikable. She was, quite simply, an outsider. (She was not unlikable, but she was unpopular.)

The difference can be subtle, but using was instead of were could create confusion about whether something is factual or hypothetical.

If this was his last day on the job, Jack would have to speak his mind. (suggests Jack knows this is his last day, and he has something he plans to say)

If this were his last day on the job, Jack would have to speak his mind. (suggests Jack is thinking about what he would to if this were his last day, but uncertainty surrounds the question of whether it is, in fact, his last day)

hypothetical vs. conditional

Something is hypothetical if it exists in concept but not in reality. (A hypothesis is an explanation or premise that is proposed or assumed to be true but requires further investigation to be proved or disproved.) It may be purely conjectural, or it may be highly probable but not yet substantiated.

If water is found on Mars, evidence of bacteria and other life forms may be found there as well.

Something is conditional if its fulfillment requires the occurrence or existence of something else.

If you finish your homework, you may play with your friends.

In the event of snow, the game will be canceled.

If the condition is met, then something will happen (or will not happen: If you fix the problem now, then I will not report you.).

Note that the order of the sentence can be changed without changing the meaning:

You may play with your friends if you finish your homework.

Our friendship will end if you betray my confidence.

I won’t report you to the authorities if you can solve this problem.

Conditional statements express speculation about what could have happened, what might happen, or what we expect to happen (or hope will happen) if the conditions are met:

If I finish this blog post in time, then I can meet my friends for lunch.

If you submit your request by April 1, then you will be guaranteed a seat.

Often, then is implied but not stated:

If Joan wants to know what happened, (then) all she has to do is ask.

If she’d known that Saturday’s performance would be her last, Amanda would have planned an encore. (Amanda did not know that Saturday’s performance would be her last—but it was.)

If I had gone to the concert, I would have missed my flight. (I did not go to the concert, and I did not miss my flight.)

Hypothetical statements are conditional:

If I were you, I would hire an editor! (hypothetical—I am not you, and I will never be you.)

But not every conditional sentence is hypothetical:

If I offended you, I am sorry. (I was not aware that what I said was offensive at the time I said it. Thank you for telling me!)

Was or Were

As we’ve seen, an “if” sentence can be conditional but not hypothetical, so the choice of was or were is not determined simply by looking for an “If” statement.

Was is the appropriate choice when describing (or speculating about) something that has happened, whether in a fictional universe or reality as we know it:

If Stargazer was warned that the base would be attacked, he should have followed the proper procedures. (The base was attacked, and someone has suggested that Stargazer was given advance warning. Can he be trusted?)

If Terri was upset about the changes, she should have talked to me. (Changes were made, and I’ve just learned that Terri was upset about them. If she had talked to me, I may have been able to prevent her from quitting!)

If a situation occurred more than once, a generalization can be made about what routinely happened in a given circumstance.

If I was running late, Max would be there to help out.

Note that when can often be substituted for if in these kinds of sentences:

When I was running late, Max would be there to help out. (I was late more than once, and Max provided assistance. I miss him!)

Remember, too, that the choice of was or were depends upon whether the subject of the sentence is singular or plural:

The calls were infrequent, so I didn’t mind.

If the caller was not in my list of contacts, I did not answer.

Jerry was ready to go.

Jerry and his friends were ready to go.

You were not willing to take a risk. I was.

If you’ve followed me this far, you should be able to determine whether was and were are used correctly in the following paragraph.

Dawn was always frantic whenever this happened, and she’d go through her list of contacts until she found someone to talk to. Donna was Dawn’s first choice, but If Donna wasn’t available, Dawn would call me. When the calls were infrequent, I didn’t mind. I don’t know who Dawn called when I was unavailable, but if I were her, I’d have called Cindy.

Returning to examples from song lyrics:

“If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway?”
(“If I Were a Carpenter,” lyrics by Tim Hardin. Recorded by numerous artists, including the songwriter.)

The singer is not suggesting that he is a carpenter (so the idea is hypothetical); he’s wondering how, well, conditional (or unconditional) his beloved’s affections are.

“If I Were a Boy” (written by BC Jean and Toby Gad) was popularized by Beyoncé—and I’m fairly certain she is not, in fact, a boy. (hypothetical)

Of course, we can also find examples of lyrics that use the indicative (was) instead of the subjunctive (were):

“If I was to say to you
Girl we couldn’t get much higher”
(“Light My Fire” by the Doors: Robbie Krieger, John Densmore, Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek)

However, I’d recommend limiting the use of was to informal speech when speaking hypothetically.

Or, one could do as Alice Walker did for the title of a poem: include both!

“If I Was President (Were for those who prefer it)”

* Note that the subjunctive mood does not require the use of were; for example, the statement “The prosecutor recommended that the accused be sentenced to death” uses the subjunctive form, as does “The teacher insisted that her pupils speak English.” For this post, however, I am limiting my discussion to the matter of when to use was and when to use were.