How one little letter can sabotage your meaning

Massage your message for optimum clarity.

I have an aversion to adversity.

That’s an easy way to distinguish between “averse” and “adverse.” Averse means “opposed” or “having an antipathy”; adverse means bad, unfavorable, or opposing. Too often people use the latter when they mean the former, as in, “I wouldn’t be adverse to that happening.”

What a difference a “d” makes. Single letters often mark the distinction between proper usage and misuse.

How many times have you heard someone say he was “taking a new tact”? He meant, “taking a new tack.” The word “tact” derives from the word for touch and most often is used to describe delicacy in handling a situation.

“Tack” is a sailing term—to “tack” is a way of varying one’s course. More generally, we use it to mean trying a new approach, as in, “Why don’t you take a new tack and try some tact, you boorish oaf?”

Here’s one that is much easier to detect in writing than in today’s lip-lazy diction: “I must compliment you on the way that wine complements this meal.” The latter derives from the same root as “complete,” so it’s easy to remember. Of course, the meal in question may be dog food, so it tells you a little bit about the sommelier’s acuity.

Another single letter of note is conspicuous by its absence. “Alright” is not all right, but people frequently write it along the lines of “already.” (And yes, it’s a letter and a space that are missing. Show-off.) No one, of course, would equate “already” with “all ready.” And even though “alright” appears in certain unabridged dictionaries, it’s sloppy. Better to be all right.

Every day vs. everyday. Here it’s just a matter of a space. The latter is an adjective describing something that might occur every day: “He quickly assimilated into the office’s everyday routine.” We see the same problem—and too often these days—with “layoff” (noun) and “lay off” (verb).

I must apprise you that it’s time to appraise another miscue—using “appraise” (assess the value of) when one means “apprise” (inform or advise). My appraisal: It stinks.

And now the sovereign of all single-letter stumpers: who/whom and the hideously misused whoever/whomever. “Whomever is in charge should take care of this.” Commonly heard, and just as commonly wrong. It’s a simple misuse, and the one easiest to correct. If you would use a nominative pronoun (I, he, she, we, or they), use “who” or “whoever.” If you would an accusative pronoun (use me, him, her, us, or them), go with whom/whomever.

But there is a trickier construction that many find baffling. I’m guessing that those of you who’ve gotten this far were those in Mrs. Pickering’s seventh-grade English class who would beam with delight over the task of diagramming sentences. There and then would have been spoken the dreaded term, “noun phrase.”

The noun phrase is key to unlocking the whoever/whomever quandary. Here’s the correct form: “Please give this report to whoever runs the sales team.”

“Wait,” you might cry. “You have a nominative form as the object of a preposition. Clearly that requires an accusative. Aaaaaaggghhhh!”

Calm thyself. The entire noun phrase—”whoever runs the sales team”—is the object of the preposition; that phrase, within the larger sentence, is a solid entity. The noun phrase itself, however, has a subject, the nominative “whoever.” Because “he or she” runs the sales team, you’d want to use whoever.

I know, I know. All right, already.

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