Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Let's bury this one

I've written about the difference between inter and intern before, but this morning I received an obituary that mentioned where the deceased's ashes would be "interned."

Nope. To inter is to bury. To intern is to confine someone to a specific location, such as a camp, usually during a time of war. So an interment is a burial and an internment is a type of imprisonment.

While I suppose we could argue that someone who's dead is imprisoned in an urn, let's not.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Welcome to my bailiwick

Hello, everyone, and welcome to my new blog.

I'm your grammar granny--the source you come to when you have a question about how to use English properly. I promise not to use a boatload of grammar terms unless the terms are necessary to make a point. As simply and clearly as I can, I'll try to help you straighten out some of the common mistakes people make as they grapple with the subtleties, nuances, and just plain craziness of the English language.

You should always consult a granny if you're confused about English, because we're the last generation of students whose high school teachers taught them how to write properly. When I was in high school, English papers received two grades--one for the content and one for the way that content was expressed. And in my senior year, the term project that was required for graduation was graded by two teachers, one of whom was always an English teacher. Grammar and usage were drilled into our heads every day. We were taught that how we wrote was important, not only in English class, but also in every other subject across the entire curriculum.

By the time my children reached school age, English instruction didn't include diagramming sentences or learning the parts of speech. Those activities--which are very useful for understanding how English sentences and paragraphs are constructed--were deemed irrelevant. Students wrote in journals that no one else ever saw, and they learned about "the writing process," the final product of which was often nearly unreadable. Don't get me wrong. The writing process is important, but if grammar and usage skills are weak, a perfect process still may produce a substandard piece of work.

The degradation of English has continued, and much of the writing I see from teachers, professionals such as doctors and lawyers, PR representatives, communications specialists, business people, and journalists shows a surprising lack of knowledge about basic English usage. It's sad, because reading and writing are still the skills most essential for success, even in the time of text messaging and e-mail. You need to find the answers somewhere, and that's the reason for this blog.

So let's begin with a common mistake: the difference between imply and infer. This is an easy one, although I hear many people mangle the two words.

Here's the rule: A speaker implies. A listener infers. If you're speaking, you imply something. It's up to your listeners to infer what you meant.

For example:

John implied (as he spoke about the incident) that Rick had had cheated on the English exam.

From what John said (as I listened ), I inferred that Rick was guilty as sin.

If you have questions that continually trip you up, send them as a comment, and I'll be happy to tackle them for you.