The most common verbal errors spread the way the common cold does: One person picks it up from another, usually quite casually. The next thing you know, nearly everybody’s infected.
I compare these transgressions to a cold, as I am likening the two elements. Think of this: The critic compared his voice to that of Caruso. To draw a contrast, I would use compare with. “Caruso was a great singer, compared with you, Larry; you howl like an alley cat in labor.”
So, let’s treat the linguistic outbreaks—with some usage antibiotics.
Here’s hoping they will affect you positively, yielding a salubrious effect. Wow. These two near-homonyms are tough, because each can be used as a noun or a verb. Those are just the most common usages for each.
Effect vs. affect
Effect as a verb is to bring about, as in to effect change.
Affect as a noun—pronounced AFF-ect—denotes a person’s emotional state, especially when it’s visible. This one is probably of little use to you—unless you’re a clinical psychologist—except for the purposes of recognizing its misuse: “Hey, Smitty, you spelled effect with an A, you yucklehead!” That’ll affect his affect, all right—and quite effectively, at that.
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Reticent vs. reluctant
Henceforth, ol’ Smitty might become reticent, or reluctant to speak. Although reticent has come to be used in place of reluctant, the phrase “reticent to speak” should be avoided. Better not to say anything.
Time now to home in on another widespread problem. Hone means to sharpen; one does not hone in on a target. Rather, one would home in, like a homing pigeon. A honing pigeon would be unusual, and probably dangerous. Switchblade-toting birds should be avoided, I say.
Comprise, compose, constitute
Also to be avoided is the misuse of comprise, notably in the phrase “is comprised of,” when “is composed of” is meant. I’ll say this once: The whole comprises the parts, not the other way around. OK, I lied. I’m saying it again: The whole comprises the parts, not the other way around. Remember it this way: New England comprises Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
If you want to go with the components first and conclude with the entirety, use constitute. In that case, please start with Connecticut, which is, after all, the Constitution State.
Continually vs. continuously
I continually remind people that continuously means incessantly, whereas continually means repeatedly, in frequent intervals. Many dictionaries concede that their usage has become virtually indistinguishable, but we do try to cater to purists.
In doing so, we’ve developed a rapport with our audience — not to be confused with a report (pronounced REE-por, as I’ve heard it said). That’s a simple mishearing of a term, but viral it has gone, nonetheless.