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Mr. Dad: How to be right when you write

Mon., Feb. 21, 2011, midnight

Dear Readers: A few months ago I devoted this column to correcting some of the common mistakes people make when writing. The response was overwhelming. Of course, a few people thought the whole topic was idiotic, but the majority of e-mails were positive. And many of you sent in your own pet peeves. One question that came up several times was, “What does this have to do with parenting?” Fair enough. The answer is simple:

Being able to communicate effectively is a very valuable skill. I worry it isn’t getting the attention it deserves in many classrooms and homes.

At some point, our sons and daughters are going to find themselves needing to write something important – a high-school term paper, a college admissions essay, a job application, or a critical whitepaper for the CEO.

And while I don’t believe that usage errors indicate a lack of intelligence, they don’t make the writer look particularly bright.

Here, then, are a few more common mistakes.

• Then vs. than.

“Bill has more hair on his chest then Bob,” or “The beautician waxed Bill than Bob.” Both are wrong. “Then” relates to time (eat your vegetables, then you get desert), while “than” indicates a comparison. “The United States is bigger than Cuba.”

• Their vs. there vs. they’re.

“There” is a place. “Their” is a possessive. “Did you steal their silverware?” “They’re” is a contraction of “they” and “are.” “They’re calling the police.”

• Few vs. less.

These two mean essentially the same thing, but they’re used differently. The rule is that if you can reasonably count whatever it is that you’re talking about, use “few.” If you can’t, use “less.” For example, “eat fewer meat balls and less salt.”

• Disinterested vs. uninterested.

If you’re disinterested, you don’t have a bias or an interest in the outcome. Judges should be disinterested. If you’re uninterested, you have no interest. Judges should definitely not be uninterested.

• Advise vs. advice

Advise is a verb — it’s what you’re doing when you offer suggestions. Advice is a noun, the actual pearls of wisdom you’re giving.

• Assure vs. ensure vs. insure.

To assure is an indication of confidence, a guarantee. “I assure you that all this English usage stuff is important.”

To ensure is to make certain. “Please ensure that you turn off the gas before you light any matches.”

To insure is to purchase insurance.

• Flout vs. flaunt. To flout is to deliberately disobey a law or rule, such as smoking in an airplane restroom. To flaunt is to show off.

• Literally. “The tension was so thick you could literally cut it with a knife.” No you couldn’t. Literally means that what you’re saying next is not an exaggeration

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