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“Try and”—Another influence from the spoken word. This colloquial expression is related to be sure and and go + verb. They are synonymous, or nearly so, with try to, be sure to and go and. Such expressions should be confined to dialogue and informal writing.

 

Unique, very—You may use a qualifying modifier such as somewhat or very with the word unique if you are confining your meaning to the extended sense that something is “distinctively characteristic” or “peculiar” or “unusual.” But if you want to describe somebody or something as being the only one in its class or “being without like or equal” (unequaled), then a modifier should not precede unique. So if you mean to say that the Montana skies are strictly one of a kind or without like or equal, then you should not say that they are “very unique.” But if you mean to say that those skies are “unusual” or “peculiar,” then you may use the modifier very. You can avoid this thorny distinction simply by writing "The Montana skies are unusual beyond description (or most unusual)."

 

Verbs with auxiliaries—Consider this sentence: She was leaning to the left, favoring her right leg, which was hurting now. Here we have a verb, leaning, preceded by an auxiliary, was. Verbs with auxiliaries are never as sharply focused as verbs without them, because the former indicate indefinite time, whereas the latter suggest a given instant. Your goal is to let the story unfold as it happens, to keep the reader in the moment—the “ongoing present.” One thing that will help you do that is to use verbs that tell readers what’s happening right now. The example sentence, therefore, would be more focused if you dropped the was and said “She leaned.” You could also replace leaned with a more interesting verb like listed.

 

Very—Seeing this word in your writing should trigger a warning bell. Very may be used sparingly, but its use usually signals the need for a stronger word. As Mark Twain suggested, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.” So instead of saying “She was very angry,” you could say, “She was furious.” Or use the word terrified instead of saying "very afraid." Same goes for the word real in expressions such as real quickly.

 

When / whenever—Incorrect: I saw her only whenever she was in town. The words when and whenever are both adverbs, but they have different shades of meaning. When means “at what time” or “at or during which time,” as in Call me when you’re ready and I heard the birds singing when I awoke. Whenever means “at whatever time,” as in I’ll meet you whenever you like.

 

Who / that—The word that may have a long history of referring to people as well as things, but it can sound illiterate in some contexts where you’re obviously referring to humans—a habit that writers have picked up from spoken American English. Despite the long use (or misuse) of that in connection with people, current English textbooks maintain that who should be used to refer to people or to animals with names or special talents. That and which, they say, should be used to refer to animals, things, and sometimes to anonymous or collective groups of people. But note: using that can sometimes get you out of some tough situations, like this one:

 

“Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?”

 

You may also use that to refer to people in dialogue, because that’s the way most Americans speak.

 

Who / whomWho is the subject, and whom is the object in a sentence. Subject: Who hit the ball? He hit the ball. Object: He hit the ball to Roger. He hit the ball to whom (him)? [indirect object of the verb hit]. To decide between who (subjective) and whom (objective), test your sentence by substituting the word he (subjective). If you are forced by sentence construction to change the word he to him (objective), then you know that you need whom there (they both end with m, which signifies that they’re in the objective case).

 

Will / would & may / mightWould, the past tense of will, and might, the past tense of may, serve a variety of auxiliary functions, often to express an action or outcome that is conditional. Would, for instance, when linked to another verb, can express a contingency or possibility (If they were coming, they would be here by now); a wish, desire, or intent; willingness or preference; plan or intention; customary or habitual action; consent or choice; probability or presumption, etc. Might serves a similar auxiliary function, often expressing a condition of less probability or possibility than may.

 

Your / you’re—Careful! Your is a possessive pronoun (Is this your car?), and you’re is a contraction of the words you and are (You’re the one I love).

 

 

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Common errors - page 6

 

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