Write or Wrong?

Written By: jOakes


Error: I’m honing in on my lost ferret. It should be: I’m homing in on my lost ferret.
If you’re an artist, you hone your craft, but you home in on your favorite gallery.

Error: That long day at the office zapped all of my energy. It should be: That long day at the office sapped all of my energy. The magician zapped away my purse. When I misplaced my purse, looking for it sapped all of my energy. Sap, in verb form, essentially means to deplete.

Error: He laid there all night. It should be: He lay there all night.

Error: I want to lay in bed all day. It should be: I want to lie in bed all day.

When we talk, as in the above example, about a person who’s in bed:
Lie is the present tense. Lay is the past tense. Lain is the past participle.

When we talk about putting something on a table, for instance, or something that’s done with bricks:
Lay is the present tense. Laid is the past tense. Laid is also the past participle.

Adverbs, particularly ones ending in “ly,” almost always should not be followed by a hyphen. For instance, critically-acclaimed (and I see this sort of thing a lot, even in reputable publications) is incorrect. It should be simply critically acclaimed. The hyphen is unneeded because it adds no clarity and is therefore superfluous.
As a writer, ask yourself: What is the most important book in my life?

The most important book to a writer is a dictionary – a good dictionary (I recommend something like Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language). There is never shame in clarifying a word’s meaning. Once somebody was talking to me about the words “further” and “farther.” Although she had more than an inkling as to their individual meanings, she wanted me to explain the difference in depth between these two similar, and often confused, adverbs. I offered to grab the dictionary. However, she said, “You’re a writer. You don’t know the difference between ‘further’ and ‘farther’”? I told her it wasn’t that simple. I said that, generally, “further” is used when explaining figurative distance and “farther” when describing physical distance, but that there is more overlap in the meaning of the two than there is mutual exclusivity; in fact, some dictionaries say that they’re essentially synonyms. I even discovered a five-page article on the web dissecting the difference between the two words and the exact meaning of each. Even this highly academic article couldn’t define the words definitively. It went into the history of each, and reached no conclusions. One clear difference: Further is used exclusively when you say something such as, “Further, I would like to explain the specific disadvantages of the plan” – though, most often you would likely say “furthermore.”

Also, even dictionaries have variance in their definitions for certain words. Sometimes words can have different acceptable spellings (for example, ambience, ambiance; or cancelled, canceled), but – even if there’s a chance that looking up a word could leave you even more confused than before you opened up the dictionary – at least you will be enlightened as to the ambiguities, and know the freedoms that you have with language. It’s important to learn the rules before you break them – not break them before you know them. The myth that smart people should never have to look up a word is a danger to the survival of the English language as we know it.

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