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Watch your Tongue!
But even more important - watch your pen and P.C.

NO ONE, SURELY, WILL DISAGREE - we should all speak well, to convey meaning and to sound pleasant.

Yet many things can and do go wrong. Vigilance is always needed and, if we are lucky, a candid friend will let us know when we stumble, blunder or sound crude.

I mean, you know...

No phrase leads us more seductively into bad habits than "you know". It is sprinkled through most people's conversation, though they are usually unaware of it. All of us do need a candid critic.

It's sort of...

Not far behind "you know" is "sort of" or, worse, "sort of like" or "kind of like" or "kinda like". And sometimes there's a joining of evil forces: "You know, it's sort of like.".

Boring repetitions

Some words or phrases are repeated endlessly. Surely we've heard far too much of "cool" and "have a good day" and "take care".

Verbal sludge

Words offensively inappropriate to a particular audience are a verbal pollution that degrades the language environment. While the four Bs (bloody, bugger, bastard, bullshit) may be defended as "legitimate Australian colloquial", beyond them slang dips down to the excretory words (piss, shit) which many find distasteful, and as to the overtly sexual words (f.,c., p.) many more find them grossly offensive as demeaning sex, usually demeaning women, and an easily avoidable affront to common morality.

Ending with but

There's been an alarming growth in the tacking of "but" to the end of sentences: "I forgot to tell him, but." The sentence is better without; or the "but" might be moved to the front of the sentence. If, however, a qualifier is felt to be needed at the end, we can say, "I forgot to tell him, though."

Assorted deviations

Many slips call for the attention of that language-respecting candid critic: dropping the g from -ing words; dropping a syllable ("deteriate" instead of "deteriorate"); needlessly doubling negatives ("can't hardly" for "can hardly"); and mixing up subject and object forms ("her and I saw it" for "she and I.", or "he praised Bill and I" for ".Bill and me"). Slips of this kind are difficult for some speakers to remedy because they are usually dialectal forms; that is, passed on from parents' speech. Help from a friend or teacher or text may be needed.

Articulation is beautiful

Are we speaking more distinctly and pleasantly than did previous generations? Impossible to know; but there's no shortage of assertions that carelessness is increasing swiftly (variously described as sloppiness, slurring, mumbling or monotone). Social courtesy and one's own effectiveness as a communicator call for the best possible articulation.

Common slips

Some particular errors need specific attention. Here are ten of the more common:

  1. affect or effect? Affect, in most of its uses, is a verb meaning "influence" (also "pretend"): "Music affects me in strange ways." Effect is chiefly used as a noun meaning "result": "Music has a strange effect on me." Less commonly, "effect" is used as a verb meaning "bring about" or "cause": "The doctor will try to effect a complete cure."

  2. criterion or criteria? Only two or more things can be criteria; whereas one is a criterion: "The main criterion is sustainability."

  3. dependant or dependent? While Americans use dependent as both noun and adjective, the convention in Britain and Australia has been to use "dependant" as a noun and "dependent" as an adjective: "Tom, a dependant on a very low pension, is thus in a pitifully dependent position."

  4. imply or infer? The distinction is valuable. To imply is to hint rather than say outright, whereas to infer is to get the hint from what has been said (to deduce it). In general, a speaker or writer implies, while a listener or reader infers.

  5. its or it's? Here is the most widespread error in written English! Yet a simple rule solves the problem: Only use it's for contractions of the two words "it is" (or "it has"); whereas its, without apostrophe, is a pure possessive like his or ours or theirs, which do not need an apostrophe - so, "A bird flies to its nest."

  6. lay or lie? There's no difficulty with lie when it means an untruth: "I lied last week, but I'll never lie again, because I hate lying." But while lie means recline in the present, it turns into lay in the past: "I lie down when I can, and I like lying down, and that's why I lay down after lunch yesterday; indeed, I have always lain down thus for a siesta." But notice how lay alters when it means put-something-down: "Please lay the books on the table; by laying them there you will have laid them out ready for inspection tomorrow." Hens, of course, lay eggs (in the present) and have always laid them (in the past).

  7. lightening or lightning? A mixing up of these words is inexcusable. A flash of lightning is so different from lightening a load. This becomes more obvious when we use the shortened version: lighten the load.

  8. lose or loose? Here too is a common but hardly excusable error. After all, lose is in everyday use: "We lose and we are always losing things." But loose, meaning slack or not tight, is so different: "The knot's loose, and it's been loosening for some time."

  9. phenomenon or phenomena? As with "criterion" and "criteria", the first is the singular form, the second is the plural: "Last night's eclipse was a striking phenomenon, but nearly all eclipses are striking phenomena."

  10. weather or whether? These are just two of a number of homonyms, words that confuse us by having similar sounds or similar spellings: "Whether we go tomorrow will depend on the weather". Other homonyms are their/there, accept/except, and of course to/too/two.

Pleasures of word play

Most people don't have time to do a course or study a text that will help them notice their verbal shortcomings. Yet much can be done painlessly in the course of any day to improve things - let's call it WORD PLAY which, after all, has been a feature of human interaction down the centuries. For example.

Punning is a play on words to get a witty effect. In recent years, newspaper headlines strive mightily to be "punny" - have a look at today's paper.

Ambiguities can be hilarious - or embarrassing! "Police help assault victim" (a headline). "We saw a kangaroo driving today." "Sorry to hear you narrowly escaped death." Or the classic: "Don't kill your wife with work - let electricity do it."

Faux pas is French for "false step" or, as we would say, "putting your foot in it": "As I moved from childhood and youth into adultery." (adulthood).

Talk about language , especially within the family or among workmates, is usually welcome - language in its amusing, puzzling, surprising, illuminating features. There's so much clever phrasing surrounds us, just for the noticing, in ads, in letters-to-the-editor, in feature articles, and so on.

Notice flexibilities for which English is famous. It is not a language that can be reduced to mechanical rules. Notice how "usage" often rebels against a grammatical "rule", and how word order can be changed to produce subtle but significant changes of meaning. Only space here for one example:

He told her that he loved her

You can pop the tricky little word only into any of the eight marked positions, and each time you will vary the sentence's meaning. Incredible!

Fun with spelling

Spelling is the most obvious feature of written language and most people don't think it's funny! But when you introduce a little competition - "How well do you spell?" - they get a kick out of trying. Try these on, for example:




catarrh sciatica


Sorry, but all attempts to construct helpful rules have failed because exceptions are so numerous. The only rule that helps a little is i before e except after c yet even here exceptions abound,e.g.



Are you sure of your possessive apostrophes? A simple rule will get them right every time - but it's so simple that most people can't believe it:
  1. Write the name of the owner/owners.

  2. Then add an apostrophe.

  3. Only add an s if it sounds right.

Ignore more longwinded rules and try this one on a range of possessives. Remember, first write the name (before it owns anything), then insert an apostrophe, and only add an s if it sounds right.