Common Usage

Do you wonder when it’s common usage mistakes or just someone being picky? I’m a writer and I have above average grammar skills. I know a few grammarians who still correct a few things about my usage (like ending sentences with prepositions) that may be part of common speech patterns, especially in my geographical area, but overall I can construct decent sentences and I use the proper word.

Some words are more difficult to use properly than others. Is it picky to make certain you use the proper form of lie or lay? How about your and you’re (and yore)? Their, there, and they’re? It’s and its? Affect and effect?

Do you wonder how long it will be before these words are indistinguishable?

Is it really that difficult to know which word you’re supposed to use? Does it matter?

From’s entry for “your”:

—Usage note
In American English the pronoun you has been supplemented by additional forms to make clear the distinction between singular andplural. You-all, often pronounced as one syllable, is a widespread spoken form in the South Midland and Southern United States. Its possessive is often you-all’s rather than your. You-uns (from you + ones ) is a South Midland form most often found in uneducated speech; it is being replaced by you-all. Youse  ( you  + the plural -s ending of nouns), probably of Irish-American origin, is most common in the North, especially in urban centers like Boston, New York, and Chicago. It is rare in educated speech. You guys  is a common informal expression among younger speakers; it can include persons of both sexes or even a group of women only. See also

This doesn’t even count the random variations like my mother-in-law’s “youze guys”. She wasn’t Irish, I swear.

So when the dictionary says “it’s rare in education speech,” they’re not counting anything on Facebook, right? And while it’s terribly rude to tell someone about those typos – deliberate or not – it sets teeth on edge for those of us who use the words properly.

And even some of us who don’t.

Do you ever wonder what the words you use say about you? They can tell where you’re from, how much education you have, and quite a bit more that I don’t recall off the top of my head. It’s one reason speech writers have jobs – to give public figures the words they need to get a point across without sounding like their normal selves. Interesting, huh?

Luckily, I’m a fiction writer, so I get to plop all kinds of words into character’s mouths to make them sound like the real people they are, or whatever other point I’m attempting to make at the time.

5 thoughts on “Common Usage

  1. I have a list of words I keep going back to reference (affect and effect) to make sure I am using them properly. Some day (someday?) I will knew them by heart, or maybe not.

  2. Before we became writers, as a group, I am sure we were readers. As a child I devoured books like I devoured my breakfast, hungrily, easily reading six or seven books a week. Even now I can read a novel at a single sitting, scanning pages furiously deep into the night. So what has this to do with the traditional spelling of words? Well…everything.
    As a reader you become trained in the format, spelling and grammatical construction of the words you are reading. You may not know the theory behind the way the words appear on the page, but, after years of reading, you know what looks wrong. That is why reading some of the self published novels and books that haven’t been professionally edited can be so difficult. There are errors, typos and grammatical horrors on every line. Each one a stone to stumble over, destroying the normally smooth reading experience. Using a local dialect to give a character or place colour, is fairly normal practice, but too much of it can bring your reading to a grinding halt as you struggle with the phonetics. Not an outcome to be desired if you are the author of the work in question.
    We may carp and complain about the discipline of using the correct spelling and grammatical construction, but we do it for our readers, not for us, and long may it be so.

  3. Thanks, Ann. That’s true, about reading.

    We should also remember that professional editing doesn’t catch everything- but it makes it a lot better.

  4. I deal with this a lot at work as a software developer and project manager. Typically this occurs in support issues raised by clients.

    What has been said about the flow of reading is correct, but it doesn’t just apply to formal writing (books, newspapers, blogs) it applies pretty much everywhere there is a written word.

    Some of our clients use text speak and it can take an age to parse what they are saying. Each time you go back and re-read the reported issue you have to spend the time to re-parse the text. The result is; them being, for want of a better word, lazy as writers just means all of the readers have to do the work instead. Seeming as there is only one author and several consumers of the text the onus has moved from the author to do the work once to each and every one of the readers to do the work. Not only that but it multiplys by the number of times each reader has to revisit that text and read it again. It is largely this that frustrates me about ‘lazy’ writing.

    Who are you to say I and everyone else should do the work, you’re the one who wants to get a point across. If you can’t be bothered to put in some effort yourself as an author of a piece of text why should I as a reader put in any more effort.

    Which requires less effort to read and action?
    pls cd u fx prb wiv invcng sys b4 mon
    Please could you fix the issues that we’ve found in the invoicing system before Monday the 8th.

    Not only that but with text speak there is no correct way to write it, so you can’t even get used to it a lot of the time. The above could come as:
    pse cld U fcks pbwith inv sstm bfr mon
    ps cud u fic pblm wf in sys

    A large part of having a common definition of spelling and grammar is to make it easy to parse and for the meaning to be easy to understand. Skilled writers know how to play with those rules and from that we get authors such as Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett

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