Linguists know grammar inside and out, yet they often pooh-pooh the very notion that any usage current among native speakers can be incorrect.
But if you are slamming out copy in the real world, it helps to follow the rules—particularly when it comes to words that are commonly mixed up.
So we were pleased to run across a book from Mignon Fogarty, whose Grammar Girl is one of our favorite sites of its kind on the Internet.
The title is “Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again,” and it is slender enough to carry in a hip pocket, at least if you aren’t wearing baggy trousers that might slip down to your ankles with the added weight of a book.
You could read the whole thing on a train commute into the big city and back, yet it’s worth keeping at hand on your desk. Fogarty is fond of examples from TV and the movies but finds room to quote Shakespeare, Thackeray and Byron.
Gentle reader: If lists of rules make you see red, read no further. Fogarty isn’t going to track you down, break your fingers and edit your copy against your will. Those interested, read on for a few tripwires worth watching for:
1. Sneaked vs. snuck.
Want to see Britons smirk and possibly even roll their eyes at you? Use the word snuck in their company. (It also works to answer “good” instead of “well” when asked, “How are you?”)
The word snuck may be frowned upon in the land of bangers and mash, Elton John and page-three girls, but Fogarty says conscientious writers also steer clear of it in America.
2. Cite, sight and site.
We all know the difference, yet the wrong choice has sneaked (not snuck) into some of our writing. If you cite something, you are referring to it in a citation, Fogarty writes. A site is a location, both geographical and on the Web.
Sight —the act of seeing—dates back to a 10th-century translation of The Lindisfarne Gospels from Latin into Old English. We see with the help of light, which shares a similarly non-phonetic spelling.
3. Hilarious vs. hysterical.
“When you’re rolling on the floor laughing,” Fogarty writes, “describe the joke as hilarious, not hysterical.”
Hilarious means extremely funny. Hysterical refers to a state of emotional excess. If you have trouble keeping them straight, bear in mind the sexist origins of hysterical. Fogarty notes that it comes from a Greek word for the womb.
In one of those entries that may be due for an update, the “Oxford English Dictionary” offers this on the word hysteria: “Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions…”
4. Flair vs. flare.
Flare, meaning to blaze suddenly or spread out, is of uncertain origin. Fogarty writes the word comes from the Old English, but the oldest definition I could find in the OED was a modern reference from around 1550. If a coach starts screaming obscenities at the ref, he is flaring up, even erupting like a burst of incandescent gas in the sun’s corona (a phenomenon also known as a solar flare).
Flair, meaning style, comes from an Old French word for scent. Think of a fop who dresses with a flair and flounces about spreading his cologne in the air.
Fogarty quotes a ”Star Trek” commander telling a Vulcan: “For people without emotion, you sure have a flair for the dramatic.”
5. Hanger vs. hangar.
You hang your clothes on a hanger. Your CEO’s corporate jet is parked in a hangar. The hangar where you stash the airplane is the one with an A in the last syllable.
6. Faze vs. phase.
Faze, Fogarty explains, is an American misspelling, like OK, from the jocular oll korrect. Faze comes from the Old English feeze, which dates to 890 AD. It means “to disturb, daunt or worry,” and is often used in the negative, like this:
Although the workers found rat nests in the lunchroom fridge, they were unfazed . They simply shoved it out the tenth floor window.
Phase refers to a period of time. Fogarty traces the word to the Latin phasis, which means “bring light or show,” just as most phases of the moon bring light.
7. Hanged vs. hung.
“Oddly,” Fogarty writes, “there are two past-tense forms of the verb hang. Hanged is for people and animals you intend to kill, and hung is for everything else.”
8. Till, until and ’til.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have assimilated the notion that until should be shortened with an apostrophe to ’til. In fact, the preposition till dates back to 800 AD, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Fogarty calls the variant ’til acceptable, although she notes that “The American Heritage Dictionary” calls it “etymologically incorrect.”
Fogarty says it’s safest to stick with until if you wish to avoid controversy. We regretfully second the motion. Most editors will change till to ’til.
Russell Working is a staff reporter for Ragan.com, where a version of this story first appeared.