Careless

Expressions creep into our vocabulary that we come to accept as “normal,” but what is considered “normal” speech in a professional setting is not the same as what is “normal” for a kid hanging out in the schoolyard. In your writing and your speech, take a moment to think about the words you are using. Are you actually saying what you believe you are saying?

“I could care less.”

The usual point people are trying to make when they misuse this expression is that they don’t care. (The correct wording, “I couldn’t care less,” means you care so little that “less than zero” is not caring at all: if you don’t care (at all), then you can’t care “less.”) But if you could care “less,” then what you are actually saying is that you do care; there’s room for you to care “less.”

In some situations, saying “I don’t care” outright would be even ruder than the flip “I couldn’t care less.” Soften your tone, as appropriate, with a reply such as “I don’t have a preference,” if asked for your input, or, “Whatever you decide to do is fine with me,” when informed of someone’s plans.

On the subject of “could” . . .

Don’t use the preposition of as an auxiliary verb in place of have:

“I could of sworn I paid that bill!” X

“I could have sworn I paid that bill!”

“I must of left my hat at the theater.” X

“I must have left my hat at the theater.”

“I should of known he’d turn out to be a loser.” X

“I should have known he’d turn out to be a loser.”

“I might of gone if I’d known she would be there.” X

“I might have gone if I’d known she would be there.”

What about dialogue?

The dialogue you write for a character in a work of fiction must sound natural, but what constitutes “natural” will depend on the character’s age, level of education, personality, and experience, as well as the setting. A writer must carefully tailor the speech of each character, thereby adding a distinctive style to dialogue (or narrative). Grammatical correctness is not the primary consideration; however, a balance must be struck between readability and originality.*

In the case of have/of, consider using the letter a (short for have) instead of the word of when writing dialogue for a character who is hanging out in the schoolyard:

“I woulda finished school but my father kicked me outta** the house when I was fifteen. I had to work to eat.”

“I’da been dead meat if you hadn’t come along when you did.”

Contractions also add informality:

“She’d have told you if you’d asked.” (Instead of “She would have told you if you had asked.”)

“You could’ve called.” (Instead of “You could have called.”)

 
 
 
* There are, of course, exceptions—like Finnegans Wake, or Mammy’s dialect in Gone with the Wind. (Have you read either?)

** Outta can also be spelled “outa” (which would make more sense, as “out” has only one t, but is rarely used). An apostrophe can also be used to shorten of:

It’s out o’ this world!
He’s out o’ luck.

And if you are curious about the Irish surnames that begin with O’ you might enjoy this article.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Advertisements

mantel or mantle?

A mantel is a shelf above a fireplace.*

Mantle can be a noun or a verb and has a variety of meanings. Most commonly, mantle is used to refer to a cloak (as a garment or as “a figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority”) or to the part of the earth’s interior that lies beneath the crust.

The mantle is approximately 1,800 miles thick and makes up 84% of the planet’s total volume. (National Geographic Society)

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet is about the Russian writer and philosopher.

When she withdrew her mantle, I saw that her shoulders were bare.

Finally, a woman has taken on the mantle of leadership.

Mantle can also mean “something that covers, enfolds, or envelops.”

A mantle of snow covered the ground.

Our vision obscured by the thick mantle of smoke, we crept along the ground until we reached safety.

If you are a baseball fan, remember Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankee who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974:

The Mick wore the mantle of success with pride.

 

*Mantel can also mean “a beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace” and “the finish around a fireplace,” but most references will be to the shelf above a fireplace. (Mantle is a variant spelling, but mantel is preferred.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

lead or led?

The past tense (and past participle) of the verb lead is led. Lead is often used (incorrectly) as the past tense, perhaps because the noun lead is pronounced the same way as the verb led—except when it’s not! Confused yet? Read on!

lead (noun, pronounced “led”)

Exposure to lead can be very harmful to young children.

The core of a “lead” pencil does not contain lead—but the painted wood might!*

Many lead pipes are being replaced with copper.

lead (noun, pronounced “leed”)

“The boss wants you to take the lead on this project.”

“Mary got the lead in the school play.”

Related: lead (adjective, pronounced “leed”)

“Barry is the lead singer of the Phobias.”

“The lead story in today’s paper will be of interest to aspiring screenwriters.”

lead (verb, pronounced “leed”)

“Mark will lead the discussion on Wednesday.”

“Lead the way!”

“Don’t lead me on.”

led (past tense and past participle of the verb to lead)

The suspect led investigators to the body.

“One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a ring on my finger.”

“She’s been led astray.”

“Sharon has led this company for twenty years.”

Mistakes are easily made when we are in a hurry. For important matters, take time to proofread your work.

An investigation is underway to uncover the systems malfunctions that lead to this disaster. X

* See https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/ever-wondered-about-the-lead-in-pencils/2014/11/26/f8b5869c-548a-11e4-809b-8cc0a295c773_story.html?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

desert and dessert

Don’t confuse a geographical region (desert) with the final course of a meal (dessert) or the act of desertion!

desert

(noun): The desert is uninhabited.

We found an oasis in the desert.

(adjective): The desert climate is harsh.

The desert island provided a temporary haven.

(verb): If you desert now, you will be marked a traitor.

You cannot desert your friend in her time of need.

dessert

(noun): Dessert was the highlight of the evening.

The dessert was sweet and rich.

(A term such as dessert wine is considered as a unit, so “dessert” here is not an adjective. In fact, dessertspoon is written as one word.)

Note: The expression “just deserts ” (what is deserved) is not spelled ‘desserts’–unless, of course, it’s the name of a business that only sells sweet treats!

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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?”)