Word Nerd Alert: Commonly Encountered Conundrums Explained

I’ve proclaimed it before, and I’ll say it again—I’m a word nerd. I love words and learning about them and using them and teaching others about them. I thrive on it. In the office, we debate things like the serial comma, spelling out the number ten versus leaving it a numeral, the difference between lie and lay, and many other cool topics only grammarians find interesting.

In discussions with my co-workers, as well as many others, I find myself explaining some confusing word nuances more often than others. Because I want everyone to love words as much as I do, I’ve put together a list of the most encountered quandaries in the English language.

1. Make sure you’re saying supposedly, not supposably or supposively.

Think of “supposedly” as the first cousin of “allegedly.” They’re related, so they sound similar. The technically correct word is “supposedly,” but thanks to so much mispronunciation of the word as “suposably,” many language sources are including the incorrect version in their resources as acceptable. Maybe we can thank Joey Tribbiani for that?

Despite the common usage of “supposably,” you ought to be saying “supposedly” if you mean something seems or purports to be what is accepted or believed to be true.

2. Borrow involves taking something, while lend (or loan) requires giving something.

Both words imply a temporary shift of possession regarding a specific object, but the correct word choice depends on the perspective of the temporary transaction. If you’d like to wear my favorite black sweater, you need to borrow it from me because you do not own it. I will decide whether I will lend (or loan) it to you.

3. Lie means to recline, while lay means to place.

The word lie will never be followed by an object but lay will. Take this sentence for example: I need to lie down for a few minutes, so I will lay this book on the table. Did you spot the object with “lay”?

Thanks to the oh-so-confusing nature of the English language, each word has several variations depending on the tense. This chart from the Grammarist is by far my favorite go-to when it comes to verifying the correct usage of these words. As long as you’ve accurately identified which word to use, you can consult this table to ensure you’re then using the appropriate variation.

4. Some verbs become nouns when two words are combined.

That sounds really wonky, I know. But the instances come up often, so I wanted to address this English language predicament. You can order takeout from your favorite Chinese restaurant, and you can take out the trash. In this sentence, “takeout” is a noun and “take out” is considered a phrasal verb, because—you guessed it—the verb is a phrase.

Watch for these instances when you’re writing and editing. If you see words either separate or combined that can be used either way, such as takeoff, backup, crackdown, go-ahead, and many others, your clue about correct usage depends on the words surrounding them.

Note: This does not apply to words like “alot” and “alright.” Those aren’t words. Don’t use them.

Alot

5. “Toward” versus “towards” depends more on the speaker’s geographical location than actual correct usage.

Doesn’t that sound made up? But the truth is, “toward” is the preferred spelling in American and Canadian English, while “towards” is more common in British and Australian English. Don’t ask the AP though; Associated Press style won’t let you use “towards.” Ever.

6. Sometimes you can say, “and me.”

Because grammarians have been so insistent that we say “Alex and I saw a great movie,” we’ve misunderstood the fact that saying “You can join Alex and me next time” is correct. I was just incorrectly corrected on this over the weekend, and I had to explain that if you take out the prepositional phrase (with Alex) and conjunction (and), the sentence is accurate. The easiest way to determine the correct word is to take out the other person (or pronoun); you’ll know automatically if you should say “I” or “me.”

correct

I hope these explanations were helpful. I realize not everyone loves words as much as I do, but when you’re a professional writer and editor, you need to know the rules. It’s true; I make mistakes from time to time. Everyone does.

Even Ross from Friends.

Featured Image courtesy The Pioneer Woman.

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