Mark Twain on words:
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Thanks to reader Elizabeth Fawcett, for her comments about several common grammar errors, some of which we will cover in this April post of OnWords. They include using terms like ‘very unique’, as well as failure to use parallel structure.
Here is this month’s mini grammar and usage guide:
Further or Farther?
Do you want to go further or farther? It depends on what you are talking about. If you want get deeper into a discussion, you would go further. If you want increase distance, you would go farther. Tip: Use ‘farther’ for physical distance and ‘further’ for metaphorical or figurative distance. It sounds simple but there are other considerations. For example, to interrupt someone, do you say, “Before we go any further” or “Before we go any farther?” Both meanings are implied — figurative and physical distance. ‘Further’ and ‘farther’ have been used interchangeably since both first appeared in the 14th century, and you’re not really wrong either way, but several grammarians suggest ‘further’ sounds better when the meaning is in question. Tip 2: When in doubt, use ‘further’. It usually sounds better in ambiguous cases.
Since the pet peeve Elizabeth Fawcett cites about hearing ‘very unique’ has become more common through popular usage, it merits further discussion. When I hear someone say, “That couldn’t be more perfect!” I think, that’s right, it couldn’t. Because perfect is perfect. The same logic applies to other absolutes. Although efforts to qualify absolutes are increasingly common, and sometimes accepted in speech, advertising, and informal communications, they should be avoided in general and never used in formal business communications. Absolute words include unique, perfect, entirely, fatal, infinite, finite, and irrevocable.
Reader Elizabeth Fawcett observes parallel sentence structure seems to be a thing of the past. ‘Parallel structure’ refers to similar patterns of words, as in the proper way to list two or more things of equal importance within a sentence. These structures are typically joined with coordinating conjunctions, like ‘and’ or ‘or’. Remember these Tips:
1. Do not mix forms
When using gerunds (-ing forms):
“John likes reading, skiing, and surfing” is parallel. But “John likes reading skiing, and to surf” is not parallel.
When listing things after a colon:
“The search engine can be used to find these: most popular results, maps and directions, and related images,” is parallel. “The search engine can be used to find these: most popular results, maps and directions, and looking up related images” is not parallel.
A parallel structure that begins with clauses must not change patterns:
“Andrew told the team they should practice, run each day, and warm up before each game,” is parallel. “Andrew told the team they should practice, run each day, and that they should do some warm-ups before the game,” is not parallel.
Do not change the voice of the verb from active to passive or vice versa:
“The speakers were told they could deliver a 10-minute speech, present answers to FAQs, and take questions from the audience,” is parallel, and all clauses have active verbs. “The speakers were told they could deliver a 10-minute speech, present answers to FAQs, and that more questions would be asked by the audience,” is not parallel, and moves from active to passive voice.
Share your Pet Peeve Grammar Fails! Which errors make you cringe?