Friday, June 28, 2013

Struggling with Words, Part 4: Regardless or Irregardless?

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on commonly confused words.]

The words regardless and irrespective are synonyms. Perhaps a respected speaker once mixed up the two words by coining irregardless, and the double-negative misuse stuck for some. Prefer regardless or irrespective, and avoid irregardless.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Struggling with Words, Part 3: e.g. or i.e.?

[This is the third in a series of posts on commonly confused words.]

Most writers get e.g. right, but many get i.e. wrong. Here's the difference. The term e.g., an abbreviation of the Latin expression exempli gratia, means for example; the term i.e., also an abbreviation of the Latin id est, means that is. Another way to get these terms right is to remember e.g. as example given and i.e. as in essence

Here are some examples:

  • Allison can recite in order all the United States presidents (e.g., Washington, Lincoln, Obama). If I had written i.e., then I would have to mention all 44 US presidents.
  • The most populated cities in China (e.g., Shanghai, Beijing) are trying to alleviate pollution. If I had written i.e., then I would have mentioned Tianjin and Guangzhou, which are also more populated than New York, the most populated US city. 
  • Tonight Benjamin will see his wife (i.e., Carol). If I had written e.g., then Benjamin is a polygamist.
  • In session are the justices of the Supreme Court (i.e., Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan). If I had written e.g., then I would not have had to mention all the justices.

Some teachers suggest that we avoid using e.g. and i.e. because they come from a so-called "dead language" and instead write out for example and that is. I'm not buying it. Attorneys, doctors, and lawyers still liberally use Latin terms, so let's get these terms right. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Struggling with Words, Part 2: Principal or Principle?

[This is the second in a series of posts on commonly confused words.]

Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that an elementary school teacher taught someone, "You can tell the difference between principal and principle since the principal is your pal."

Not a very helpful tip because when I saw what was due on my first home mortgage statement, I said, "That amount is not my pal." But a capital sum placed at interest is also principal, and so is a chief, or principalreason for doing something.

So while the following tip might not be as cute as the elementary school teacher's, it is certainly more helpful: principal means chief. Examples:

  • The principal (chief of the school) dismissed the students.
  • The principals (chiefs of the company) decided to issue an IPO of their company stock.
  • The principal (chief) function of the manual is to guide you in using the software program.
  • The principal (chief part) of the loan is $400,000.
Then what is principle? A fundamental belief or rule. Examples:

  • The right to vote is a principle of democracy.
  • She will not compromise her principles
So here's a principal principle about error-free writing: when in doubt, look it up.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Struggling with Words, Part 1: Flammable or Inflammable?

[This is the first in a series of posts on commonly confused words.]

Arguments about the meaning of words pop up all over the place. Let's rely on standard dictionaries to resolve these disputes, starting with flammable/inflammable.


The online Oxford Dictionary says: 
The words inflammable and flammable both have the same meaning, ‘easily set on fire’. This might seem surprising, given that the prefix in- normally has a negative meaning (as in indirect or insufficient), and so it might be expected that inflammable would mean the opposite of flammable.
Dictionary.com also considers the words to be synonymous. It notes that while inflammable is older than flammable by about two centuries, flammable now is used more technically, again to avoid confusion with the negative prefix, while inflammable is used in nontechnical or figurative contexts.

Bottom line: Go with the word that minimizes confusion: flammable.