This post’s purpose is to provide myself with an explanation on (is on right here?) the correct usage of my most common English language pitfalls. That way I can look up things quickly. I have also the silent hope, that writing about those things, makes them stick.
I learn by mentally connecting different domains of knowledge. Trusting my intuition, fail and try again, trying to remember the failures. That is especially true for human languages. I have never put any effort in memorizing word lists. As a result I wasn’t particularly good at exams testing those without context. Given a context I performed much better.
When reading, the context gives usually enough information to understand the meaning and the intended feeling of some unknown or less known word. Besides their plain meaning, words have a subtle intent, that gives their meaning a slight shift in some direction. This feeling part is very difficult. Sometimes you might guess the true intention from the word’s pronunciation though.
I’m quite good at guessing how to pronounce an unknown word. Even in languages I know less, Italian or French for example. But there are pitfalls. Here is an example, the famous gem. I did some ruby programming, so gems lay always on your path there. I always thought the G was pronounced like in garlic and I pronounced gem that way. At the same time I was a aware of the Gs pronunciation in genetic, which is the right way.
Actually, I don’t have the chance to speak English (or some other foreign language) on a daily basis. So in case I actually have to talk English, it happens that I pronounce words absolutely wrong (like gem), but with such self-conception that my dialog partner doesn’t dare to correct me right away. Just a little bit later she drops the word, with the correct pronunciation, of course – leaving me just a little bit embarrassed. But that’s the way I learn such things.
When writing, I often have to look up words and phrases. It is hard to decide for the word that hits the right tone and mediates the intended feeling. Picking phrases that imply the correct meaning and are used regularly in today’s language is even harder. The internet isn’t very helpful here.
Building sentences and paragraphs as well as editing them, happens by listening to my gut-feeling. I have basically no theoretical knowledge about correct grammar. I have read a lot of books in English. I have even read some books about writing (most in English). But I don’t know how far I have inhaled the good examples, the knowledge and the wisdom that they provide. It just flows – or not. In the latter case I rearrange things until they do flow.
Than vs. Then
If you use the words consciously it’s quite easy. I know Then is related to time or logical order and Than is used in comparison. Nevertheless I mix them up. I catch most cases when editing, but sadly not all.
There vs. Their
Both words have quite different meanings. There is used to point at the location of something. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. But again I mix them up.
Live vs. Life
Those are harder. I always forget when to use which one? Basically Life is the corresponding noun – meaning the existence of something – to Live the verb – the act of existing or reside at some place. But there are two sources of confusion: the plural of Life is lives and the sole existence of Live shows. I still don’t get it: why Live shows?
Off vs. Of
Off has many usage scenarios. Switch the light off. Might be the simplest. Something is off, when it is moved far away from a central topic, the spotlight or a conventional or acceptable state. The voice from the off. Off odors. It is also used when you put something away. Take your clothes off. No, you don’t have to. This was just an example. Additionally it’s used as preposition to emphasize a relationship where the thing doesn’t belong anymore to or onto some other thing. The robot’s arm is off.
Of has a similar amount of use cases. A lot of, part of and because of, being the most common, I guess. But there are others. Of is used in conjunction, as part of, some verbs. Take care of, ashamed of, for example. And it is used as a preposition to show that something is taken from a certain set of things. One of the apples.
At vs. On
There are many more cases when I struggle to pick the right preposition. Even in cases I have consciously spotted a questionable usage, it’s sometimes hard for me to come up with the right one.
Do you know of other pitfalls? Some usage scenarios where you struggle deciding for the right word? Or maybe some traps I constantly fall into without even realizing it?