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Grammar Damage

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When choosing the "right" word, sometimes a little bit of math can come in handy

Mark Twain once said “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I would have liked to have met that guy.

Although the existence of thesauruses might lead you to believe that any old word will do, the truth is that even in English, words have precise meanings. When a writer chooses a certain word, it’s likely he or she chose that word because of its exact meaning - and didn’t choose a ‘like’ word from the thesaurus because it had a subtle difference in the meaning.

That doesn’t mean you can choose to use just any word that happens to catch your fancy when you’re writing (or speaking) because even when it comes to words themselves, grammar has rules. And none of us wants to break the rules, right ?

Consider, for example, the words ‘who’ and ‘that’, because they’re often used incorrectly as if, like a synonym, they can be considered interchangable. They’re not.

Who, you see, designates an individual person, a human being. That designates an inanimate object, a thing, or a collective group.

‘Bob is the man WHO called me on the phone yesterday,’ is correct. ‘Bob is the man THAT called me on the phone yesterday,’ is not.

That and which also get confused. ‘That’ is such a difficult word, in fact, I wonder if you shouldn’t just follow my friend Sandy Compton’s advice, when he once told me (while editing) that he could take out three-quarters of people’s use of ‘that’ and call a story good. That was a slight exaggeration, but if you use ‘that’ in your writing frequently, read the sentence without ‘that’ and, if it still makes sense, just chop it out of there.

Confusion also arises when choosing between the words among and between. Use between when the reference is to two people, objects or ideas - use among when there’s more than two. Want an example? Well, the first sentence of this paragraph gives an example for between. If there was a fight among the students, staff and parents at a school, however, among would be the correct word choice. (It would also be correct if there were just a fight among students, as long as more than two students were involved in the fight.)

Everyday is also a word that gives people a bit of trouble - its meaning is commonplace or ordinary. The problem is that people use everyday when they actually mean “every day” - that an event happens on each and every day (or close enough thereof if you’re into a little exaggeration).

Therefore it might be an “everyday event” for a student to ride on the bus, but if you’re saying they ride the school bus “every day” then split the word into two words.

Good and well are another pair of words that often get misused. Good is an adjective - it describes a noun and does nothing else. Well is both an adjective and an adverb, and so can be used to describe a verb where good cannot be used. Many mix-ups occur when good and well are used as adjectives after the verbs look or feel. In those cases, good is used to refer to a degree of quality - well refers to health.

Forgotten your math classes and can’t decide if something’s an average, mean, median or norm?

You get an average by adding up a group of numbers, then dividing it by the number of numbers you added together. (i.e. 3+4+6+7=20. Divide by four and your average is 5.)

The mean is the number you get when you add a series of numbers and divide it by the number of cases you want to illustrate. For example, in a group of three people who have, respectively, $5, $20 and $100, the mean amount of money in the group is $41.66666666666 (and on and on) which illustrates why you don’t really want to know the mean dollar amount of money held by three people with those amounts of cash on hand.

The median is simply the middle number in a series of numbers arranged by size - the median is the point where half of the numbers will fall below, and half will fall above. The median is used frequently to describe incomes, which is a little misleading as when you apply that to yourself, you’re either going to be richer or poorer than everyone else and who really wants to know how you compare to other people? Wouldn’t you rather know an absolute value for yourself? How does your income compare with the cost of living? But I’m getting off on a tangent here.

Norm is a way of implying average performance and you’ll see it on just about every state-mandated test your children ever take, which pretty much seems to be a cop-out to me. “If your son’s scores are anywhere around the norm, we did our job. If they’re way above the norm, we did an excellent job. If they’re way below the norm, it’s probably due to his family environment.” The norm also doesn’t give an absolute value. Maybe the norm in Idaho is that every student is ignorant - scoring above the norm, then, doesn’t mean much. Whether your son actually knows the subject he was tested on isn’t the kind of information the states are interested in. And if too many students score below the norm, why then, they just re-norm the test.

Before we leave the math portion of our grammar lesson today class, let’s talk just a bit about per capita, another favored term for income. You and your family of four are in a room with six other families of four, and the total family income for each of those families (including yours) is $30,000. The per capita income for that group, then, is $7,500. The reason why anyone would want to know that particular number is beyond me.

So let’s take a few numbers and see what we can do with them. Idaho’s population for 2007 was 1,499,402. Total personal income in Idaho was $46,776,412. Divide that second number by the first and you get per capita income for Idaho in 2007 - $31,197. (In my column I cited the figure $36,500 - you’ll have to read the story to find out why but it’s not a math issue.)

The number of households in Idaho is 615,624. Divide total personal income by that number and you’ll see the average household income in Idaho is $75,982. I can’t give a mean income amount as I’d need the actual incomes of every single Idaho earning income but who’d want that anyway? The median household income for Idaho (that’s the half above, half below number) is $40,509 (as of 2004, the most current number I could find). It’s up to you to decide which numbers you find most useful. But all this should remind you of another great thing Mark Twain once shared (it was a quote from Disraeli) -  “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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Landon Otis

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education, grammar

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