1,750 ways to get your message wrong

A retired English professor has spent more than 13 years compiling the website, Common Errors in English Usage.


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After more than 13 years of chronicling goofs that speakers of English often make, Paul Brians would have every right to scold when he encounters someone who misuses the phrase “sour grapes” or mixes up foul and fowl.

But the author of the website Common Errors in English Usage is reluctant to nag—even if he has amassed a gargantuan compendium of language blunders, with roughly 1,750 annotated entries.

“The way I like to approach usage,” he says in an interview, “is being that person who leans over the table and whispers to you, ‘You know, you’ve got a little spinach in your teeth.’ It’s not knocking you over the head and saying, ‘You dummkopf.’ It’s trying to help you out.”

Hence the straightforward, often wry tone of a site that he says has drawn more than 13 million visitors since its inception. “A chicken is a fowl,”the poultry-related entry reads. “A poke in the eye is a foul.”

The site also launched a reference book “Common Errors in English Usage“—published by William, James, & Co.—that has sold some 45,000 copies, even though the content is available for free on the Web.

Brians is a Washington State University emeritus professor who has retired to Bainbridge Island near Seattle. He started the site in 1997 as a Web-based resource for students and others.

The site tackles questions such as abstruse vs. obtuse, whisky vs. whiskey, and whether the koala is a bear (he says no). He even finds room to address “Happy belated birthday,” remarking, “The birthday isn’t belated; the wishes are.”

Correct usage isn’t elitist

Getting things right in communications isn’t a sign of elitism, he insists. Even if most readers or listeners may not care about the distinction between (say) who and whom, why risk irking a minority that does—and turning them off to one’s message?

“What is your audience going to say if there are two choices about how to phrase something,” Brians says, “and one appears to 10 percent of the population to be stupid and ignorant, do you want to risk looking stupid and ignorant?”

As a professor, he met with several parents of young English majors who did hiring for companies. If they discovered even one grammatical error in an application or résumé, they told him, they would trash it. Brians isn’t recommending such severity, but the story does suggest the importance of getting it right.

That said, he is no fanatic. If you are gabbing with your neighbor about your new sidewalk, he says, it probably doesn’t matter if you mix up the terms cement and concrete. If you’re making a trip to the hardware store to buy supplies for a backyard project, the difference is worth knowing.

Common Errors may have surprises for some, among them the entry on Duck Tape. He writes that this brand name harkens back to the original name for adhesive tape developed to wrap ammunition boxes in World War II.

“It is now usually called ‘duct tape,’ for its supposed use in connecting ventilation and other ducts (which match its current silver color),” he writes. “Note that modern building codes consider duct tape unsafe for sealing ducts, particularly those that convey hot air.”

Guerilla grammarian

You might think the effort of compiling Common Errors would have scared away all but a zealot, but Brians insists he has never spent more than a half hour at a time tinkering with entries. It’s just that he has been adding entries for more than 13 years.

Despite his avuncular tone, he can’t help mentally proofreading business communications and menus when he goes out to dinner.

“I used to joke to my wife that I’d like to become the guerilla grammarian,” he says. “When we’re in a restaurant, I would have a preprinted form that I’d fill out saying, ‘Your menu contains the following errors.’ And I’d check them off and leave it on the table.”

Or he could just e-mail a link to his website.

Don’t make these 8 mistakes

Asked for a few usages and points of confusion that have been bothering him lately, Brians offered the following:

1. Earmarks vs. hallmark

2. Epicenter

3. Expresses that vs. says that

4. Frankly

5. Incent and incentivize (he dislikes them both)

6. Kick-start

7. Literally

8. Show-stopper

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