Tips on Usage

This is a catch-all place to note and record common errors in usage, together with the correct form. Such usage errors are legion. As time goes by, the listing will probably become much longer. To start off, here are a few, which I jotted down after listening to the casual speech of other persons.

fingerprint scanner
Fingerprint Scanner

“skim” and “scan” — These two words are opposites: To “skim” a passage is to read it quickly and superficially. To “scan” a passage means to read it carefully. For some perverse reason, otherwise informed people often think these words are synonyms. Get this straight: “scan” means to be careful, not superficial. If you have trouble with this, remember that a “scanner” captures every detail of the item scanned.
pebble skimmingPerhaps it is also helpful to recall that “to skim” means to touch just the surface of something, as in skimming a pebble across the water. Sadly, even authors and  editors occasionally commit this error, especially in using “scan” to mean a quick once-over.

“could potentially” — The “potentially” is redundant. Strictly speaking, “could” means “was able to” (as in “He could play the Moonlight Sonata when he was 13.“). As such, it is the past tense of “can.” In these times, however, it is also used as a synonym for “might,” when referring to something unknown or doubtful: “It could snow this afternoon.” In general, “might” is preferable because it is the correct word, and “could” is not; but if you use “could” to express uncertainty, don’t compound the sin by adding the gratuitous “potentially.”

“each” and “both” — Sometimes, when you’re mindlessly chatting in your native tongue without thinking very hard about it, you will come up against the “each vs. both” problem. Remember to stop and think it through. If you do, you are unlikely to get this wrong. For example, if you say, “They both have wives,” it means, literally, that they are polygamous, and possibly with the same women! If you mean that each one is married, and not to the same person, you say, “Each one has a wife.” Whether you use the singular or plural depends on the subject of the sentence (not on the word “each” or “both”). If the subject is “they,” or if it is a conjoint compound subject (more than one person mentioned in the subject, with “and” as the link), the verb must be plural. If the subject is “one” (as in the example above), the verb must be in the singular. By its very nature, “both” will be a modifier to a plural subject, so the sentence will take a plural verb.

dad shares car
Both own the car

Here is another example: “My Dad and I both own a car” means that it is one car, and it is jointly owned by the two of us. “My Dad and I each own a car” means that there are two cars, and one is owned exclusively by my Dad, and I own the other one by myself. And, as a final note, be sure that when you use “both,” that you refer to two actors, and two actors only. “Both” is binary; “all of them” or “all” is used for more than two.

Gateposts don’t talk.

“between” and “among” — Like “both,” “between” only works with two nouns or pronouns. (The “tween” part is an archaic reference to “two.”) If you are referring to more than two, then use “among.” For example, the common expression, “Between you and me and the gatepost . . . ” (also the title of a book by Pat Boone) is technically incorrect, as three entities are privy to the secret, not just two. (And note that the “you” should be in second position, not first; “me” should be in third position, not second.) Finally, when you use “between,” and you are one of the parties, please say “between you and me.” “Between” is a preposition; it takes the objective case. “Between you and I” is not only stuffy; it is wrong, too.

“borrow” vs. “loan” — First, the verb is “lend,” not “loan.” “Loan” is a noun. So “Loan me that book” is a barbarism. It should be “Lend me that book.” Secondly, “borrow” is what the person does who receives the item; “lend” is what the person does who hands it over. Incredibly, there are people in this country that say “Borrow me that book, will you?” That is probably a very “back woods” dialect in action.

Linus-nauseated“nauseated” vs. “nauseous” — To be sick at your stomach is to be “nauseated.” If you are “nauseous,” you are making other people sick to their stomachs! “Nausea” is the condition of digestive illness, of dyspepsia. Something that creates the problem is “nauseous” or “nauseating.”

“different than” vs. “different from” — “Different than” is wrong. The “than” sneaks in because it is almost always used in comparisons: “Kathy is shorter than Sally.” But “different” is not a comparative adjective (like “shorter” or “more”). It is an absolute. Distinct nouns “differ from” one another, not “differ than” one another. If you substituted “distinct” for “different,” you probably would not make the mistake. No one says, “This one is distinct than this other one”; so why would you say “different than this other one”? This is an example of how the “sounds OK” school of grammar can lead you astray. Some argue for an exception if “than” does not merely connect the “different” to a noun or pronoun, but rather introduces a clause as a subordinating conjunction: “This food tastes different than it used to.” This is a bogus exception: the syntax is correct for a comparative, but not an absolute adjective such as “different” or “distinct.”

decimate“decimate” — This word means to kill one out of ten of a vanquished enemy’s soldiers. This was the Roman practice, an effective act of terror to make the other prisoners of war compliant. It derives from “decem,” the Latin word for “ten.” So why would you use this term to mean “obliterate” or “wipe out”? The only answer is ignorance. Now you know. Say “obliterate” or “annihilate” when the slaughter is widespread.

kiss the bride
Kiss the bride only

“only” confusion — Consider three sentences: (1) “Only I kissed the bride”; (2) “I only kissed the bride”; (3) “I kissed the bride only.” Can you identify three different meanings, according to the placement of the “only”? In (1) no one else kissed the bride; in (2) I kissed her, but I didn’t do anything else to her; and in (3) I did not kiss anyone other than the bride. Keep your “only” as close as possible to the word you are trying to affect with it; otherwise, you could be conveying a much different message from the one you have in mind.


Banish “As Per”

Incredibly, some dictionaries actually stoop to define “as per” as some sort of term or idiom.

Make no mistake: “As per” is a barbarism, an error, an ignorant gaffe. The error is committed by bureaucrats trying to sound official and by other self-important persons. These two words should never be written or spoken together.

Per” means “as” or “according to.” It is a Latin preposition that is often translated into English as “as.” So you are free to say “per the instructions” or “as instructed” or “according to the instructions,” but you should never say “as per the instructions.” It is redundant usage and banal jargon to boot.

I hope this post, however short, is clear: Don’t ever use “as per.”

May I? Can I? Shall I? Will I?

Two easy-to-make word confusions in American Standard English are:

  • May/Can
  • Shall/Will

These are not grammar errors, but rather, problems of correct usage. It is a problem of using the wrong word. One hears these mistakes so often that, after a while, the wrong choice starts to “sound right” and the right choice sounds strange. Do not worry: These two are very easy to master.

May versus Can

Little EngineCan” means “to be able.” The “Little Engine that Could” kept saying “I think I can, I think I can.” It’s all about what is possible.

May” means “to be allowed” or “to have permission.” In a slightly different context, it can mean “might,” as in “I may go to the store tomorrow.” Context alone will tell you if the statement is talking about something that is permitted or something that is merely a possibility.

Virtually all “may/can” errors involve using “can” when the correct word is “may.” The error almost always occurs when asking for clearance or permission: “Can I go now?” For generations, parents have been responding, “Of course you can go, but the question is whether you may go!” Then you are expected to rephrase the question correctly. Why not save some trouble for everyone involved, and ask it correctly the first time?

Shall versus Will

Like “may/can,” “shall/will” is fairly straightforward. All you have to do is know what the rule is, and then follow it. Most careless or uneducated speakers use “will” for everything, as if “shall” did not exist in the language. It has come to the point that even the experts in grammar regard them as interchangeable. Chaucer used them as such. But in the 17th century, the tradition arose to give each word its own use. So the “shall/will” question is about a traditional usage, which seems sensible, as opposed to a hard and fast syntactical requirement. The correct use of “will” and “shall” identifies you as a person who has command of his mother tongue; so it is a good idea to follow this rule, even if some moderns regard it as a bit stuffy.

Here is the rule; it comes in two parts:

Part I:

Will” is used for the future tense for verbs in the second person (you singular/you plural) and in the third person (he/she/it/they).

Shall” is used for the future tense for verbs in the first person only (I/we).

If you are just prognosticating, you should use “shall” for “I” or “we” and “will” for everyone else: “You will enjoy the play” and “We shall enjoy the play.” Likewise, “She will return tomorrow” and “I shall return tomorrow.”

Part II:

Confusion arises when, as a speaker, you want to add extra force or impact to your statement. Instead of merely predicting what will happen (using the future tense), you want to make a firm or emphatic assertion, an affirmation. This can be interpreted as an imperative — that is, a command — either to yourself (using the first person) or to other people (using the second or third person). In this instance, part I of this rule is flipped onto its head: Use “will” in the first person, and “shall” in the second and third persons.

She shall return tomorrow” is not simply a prediction; it is either a command or a statement made to indicate that “she” (whoever “she” is) has no choice in the matter, and must return, no matter what.

"It will" and "It shall"
“It will” and “It shall”

Likewise, “I will return tomorrow” is more than a statement of your intention; it implies that you are determined to return, or that you have no choice but to return.

To illustrate: “We shall overcome” is a statement that predicts something about the future. “We will overcome” expresses determination, or, in the alternative, that there is no other option: overcoming is inevitable.

shall we danceNow, just when you think you have it, there is one more special usage that seems to swim upstream against the rule. If you want to ask someone “Do you want to dance?”, a refined way of putting the question is: “Shall we dance?” But “shall” is simply the future tense in the first person, and this seems like a veiled request. Why would it not be “Will we dance?” I don’t know. It seems like an exception to both parts of the rule. Just remember it as a special case, I guess.

If these subtleties of meaning are a little cloudy, just go with part I of the rule, and leave part II for later.


whichcraftWhich” is one of the biggest trouble-makers of the English language, so it will take a little extra time and space to subdue it.

Expect a “Which” in Three Different Contexts

First, you must be ready for “which” to rear its head in three different contexts:

Which” is a relative pronoun: “I want to buy a shirt, but I don’t know which.” It “relates” back to the word “shirt.” It is also a relative adjective: “I’m deciding which shirt to buy.” If this is not clear, look over the sentences and ask why “which” is a pronoun in the first example and an adjective in the second.

Which” is an interrogative pronoun: “Which do you want to buy?” It is also an interrogative adjective: “Which shirt to you want to buy?” This application is parallel to its usage as a relative pronoun/adjective, so it should raise no new issues for you.

Now, let’s start swimming in the deep end of the pool: “Which” is also a perfectly good subordinating conjunction. Remember, a conjunction introduces a clause. Remember that a clause (unlike a phrase) has both a subject and a predicate. Unlike an independent clause, a subordinate clause does not express a complete thought; that is, it needs to attach to an independent clause in order to make good sense. Here is an example:

The engagement ring, which I bought and paid for, looks great on your hand!

engagement ring
Looks great!

Here we introduce another shady grammatical character, “that.” Just like “which,” “that” can come disguised as a pronoun (“I don’t want that“) or as an adjective (“I want that one“). Technically, “that” serves in this way as a demonstrative pronoun or adjective (i.e., it points things out). And, just like “which,” it can also appear as a subordinating conjunction.

Could you just as easily say, “The engagement ring that I bought and paid for looks great on your hand!“? Of course you can; but (as explained below) you would be conveying a meaning distinct from the first appearance of the engagement ring, above.

Which Subordinating Conjunction?

Welcome to the world of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. In describing some noun (or pronoun):

  • A restrictive clause provides information to narrow down the possibilities (i.e., “restrict” the choices) to the noun (or pronoun) in question. Without a restrictive clause, the hearer might not know which one out of several possibilities the speaker is discussing.
  • A non-restrictive clause does not need to help identify the noun because both  the speaker and the hearer already can uniquely identify which item is the topic of discussion. A non-restrictive clause simply adds additional information.

This distinction is used most often in the context of a rule for commas:

  • A non-restrictive clause is set off with commas. Think of a non-restrictive clause as a kind of apposition — additional or optional descriptive information.
  • A restrictive clause is not set off by commas, as the information is part of the complete specification of the subject.

Look at the two previous examples:

  • The engagement ring, which I bought and paid for, looks great on your hand!
  • The engagement ring that I bought and paid for looks great on your hand!

The first sentence uses a non-restrictive clause. It conveys a meaning something like the following: “Your ring, which (by the way) I bought for you, looks really good on your hand. (Don’t forget who footed the bill for that ring!)”

The second sentence uses a restrictive clause. It conveys a meaning like the following: “The ring that I bought you (as opposed to that other ring that some other guy bought you) looks really good on your hand. (I’m glad you decided to wear mine, and not that other guy’s ring!)”

What does this have to do with “which” and “that?” you ask. Over the centuries, English-speakers have used “which” and “that” interchangeably between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. You will notice, however, that in the two examples above, “which” is used for the non-restrictive clause and “that” is used for the restrictive clause. This is a fairly modern convention, adopted probably a little over a century ago. In the well-respected little book, The Elements of Style (known also as “Strunk & White,” now in its 4th edition), the authors make the distinction described here, and counsel us that it is wasteful to have two perfectly good words that exercise the same, identical function; we should therefore give them separate syntactical chores.

And so it is: Let’s say you must call upon a subordinating conjunction to relate a subordinating clause to a noun (or pronoun) in an independent clause:

  • Use “which” (with commas) if simply adding descriptive material; or
  • Use “that” (without commas) if you must help to identify more precisely the item being discussed.
Who” Causes Problems?

By the way, the same comma rule for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses also applies to clauses introduced by “who.” Remember, “who” is used for persons; “which” and “that” are reserved for things. Fortunately, “who” is your only choice, so there is no problem similar to the “which/that” issue. (On the other hand, you have a “who/whom” decision to make, but that’s for a different page). So, when the “who” further defines or identifies your person (restrictive clause), there is no need for a comma. When the “who” provides additional or optional information (non-restrictive clause), commas must appear:

  • man tripped over his feet
    The man who was drunk

    Restrictive Clause: Two men walked out of a bar: a sober one and a drunk one. The man who was drunk tripped over his feet.

  • Non-restrictive Clause: A man and a woman walked out of a bar. The man, who was drunk, tripped over his feet.

“Try and” versus “Try to”

try andPlease try and be on time tomorrow.” It’s hard to know where “try and” came from. If you think about it, the expression seems to direct a person to do two things: (1) try, and (2) be on time. The grammatical error is minor; the main problem is that the construction simply does not say what we think it most likely means.

“Try” (whether in the sense of “to expend effort” or “to test”) is a transitive verb. (In the “try and” construction, there is no object for “try.” That is the minor grammatical fault.) As a transitive verb, “try” must have a direct object. This may be a noun or pronoun (“Try this song”), an Dont-try-and-stop-me-motherinfinitive (“Try to sing!”) or a gerund (“Try singing”). When there is no explicit direct object, as in “Try again,” the direct object (perhaps “it”) is understood: it is not “trying” if one is not “trying something” or “trying to do something.”

The most recent edition of Fowler’s English Grammar and a couple of dictionaries are more charitable than I would be about this expression. They call it “an idiom.” You call any non-standard usage an “idiom” when you give in and say, “well, it doesn’t follow the rules, but we all can live with it.” There’s a fine line between idiomatic and idiotic. The permissive crowd also adds the caution that “try and . . . ” should not be used in formal speech. Well, I should think not! Try not to say “Try and . . . .”

hockeyAnd one other thing: “Try” is widely used as a noun, as in “The old college try” or “Give it a try.” This used to be considered wrong. The noun form of “try” is “trial,” just as the noun form of “deny” is “denial.” As a noun it started out in the sense of “assay” or “test,” but migrated to “attempt.” It has been nominalized for so long and so widely that today it is accepted as a noun, even in formal writing. If you are in an ultra-conservative mood, you might decide to label it a neologism and avoid using it, but that is a losing battle.

Infinitives: To Split or To Not Split?

split-infinitiveThere is no rule of grammar, of which I am aware, that bans the splitting of an infinitive.

The “never-split” school of thought posits that the infinitive form of a verb is “to” immediately followed by the verb stem. Therefore, splitting an infinitive is destroying the verb form. The coupled pair of words should never be separated: never ever!

The “OK-to-split” school of thought says that there is no syntactical rule that forces “to” to always be next-door-neighbors with its verb stem. As a matter of rhetoric (rather than as a matter of grammar), a split infinitive can sometimes be marginally more communicative, as in the famous Star Trek intro, “To boldly go where no man has has gone before.” Moreover, we split other verb forms, like the progressive and the perfect tenses; why not infinitives? We can say, “He has always gone to Boston,” so why can’t we say “He likes to always go to Boston“? It’s not pretty, but is it wrong or illegal?

Split infinitive alert! Line 12!

Personally, I side with the “OK-to-split” crowd, in part because English is the only language (of which I am aware) that has a two-word infinitive form. This issue does not come up in other Western European languages at all; so English can expect no guidance from its neighbors. And the fact that we split lots of other verb forms without batting an eye is persuasive to me. Finally, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 142: “Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.” Yes, I know the Bard often took liberties with our native tongue, especially when he needed a rhyme; but if he can do it in a sonnet, I can surely do it in prose.

I draw the line, however, when the insertions in between “to” and its stem become so protracted that it is hard to follow the syntax of the sentence. In other words, it surely is not recommended to, in a manner of speaking, and with no concern for clarity of content, make a cavernous split in an infinitive.

Those in the “OK-to-split” group do not usually have strong feelings about the subject; that is, they do not insist that you split your infinitives. On the other hand, the “never-splits” have rigid opinions. Now, good writing should stand in the background from its content; that is, it should be invisible to the reader. This allows the message to sink in without any competing distractions from the method of expression. Therefore, the safest policy is to follow the practice of the “never-splits” — not because they are right (as I do not think they are) — but because they have strong feelings on the subject. The rest of us do not.

Lay versus Lie


“Lie” and “Lay” are not hard to tell apart, if you just pay attention. They are two different verbs that mean two different things. Mixing them up is, like “ain’t,” a social marker that indicates a person of little education, limited mental ability or impaired awareness. So do not use “lay” when you mean “lie.” It is an ignorant mistake. Likewise, do not use “lie” when you mean “lay,” not even in the most informal of speech. These two mistakes tell others who know better that you simply do not care about being correct, or do not know how.

Some might think that the confusion exists because the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” This seems unlikely, as those who commit this error seldom use the past tense of “lie,” and probably do not know what it is. More often, you will hear something like “It was just layin’ there.” That’s wrong because the verb is not “lay”; it’s “lie.”

Get this right, now and forever:

Lie” is to recline, as in “lie in the bed.” It is an intransitive verb. It has no direct object. There is no “lay” in “lie” until you get to the past tense. “Earlier this morning, I lay in bed.” That is correct. The past participle of “lie” is “lain.” It is fairly rare in modern speech. An example might be: “All day the outlaws have lain in wait for the stagecoach.

Lay” is to place something, usually on a surface. It is a transitive verb. It needs a direct object. For example: “Please lay your books on the desk.”  The past tense of “lay” is “laid,” so it is correct to say or write, “She laid the keys on the table.” The past participle of “lay” is “laid,” the same as its past tense form. It is also fairly rare in modern speech. An example: “I hope we have laid to rest this confusion of ‘lie’ and ‘lay’.

hen laying

It is worth noting that “lie” also means to tell a falsehood, but that is a different verb altogether; it is just spelled the same as the “lie” in this post. “Lay” also has an additional meaning, or more correctly, a specific context. It is what hens and other fowl do when they produce an egg. That might help to remind you that “lay” is to place, whereas “lie” is to recline.

“Lie down” is a phrasal verb based on “Lie,” and it means to move from a more upright position to a reclining position. “Lay down” is a phrasal verb that means to put something one is holding in another place. For example, “Don’t be excited; just lay down your weapon.” “Lay up” is also a phrasal verb based on “Lay,” and it means to place something aside for later. “Lay around” is incorrect. That verb should be “lie around,” meaning to relax and do little or nothing. “Lay over” and “lay away” are more phrasal verbs based on “lay.”

Who is “They”?

By now you should be persuaded that speaking correctly is “a good thing,” and you are almost there. Be careful! “They” can be a pitfall.

Two different kinds of “they” can cause trouble. The first one is dealt with on the “Everyone” is Singular” page. (Remember? “Everyone must sit in their chair” is a grammatical error, as “everyone” is singular, and “their” is a plural possessive. Say “his,” “her” or “his or her” instead.)

what-they-say“They” is a trouble-maker in a second way: It is the use of “they” as an indefinite pronoun. Examples: “They said we didn’t have school tomorrow” and “They call me ‘the Dude.‘” This second problem is an error of rhetoric; it is inarticulate. Why? Who is they?” Remember from grammar that all pronouns must have antecedents, that is, they must take the place of a noun, and the identity of that noun should be clear. That rule describes the problem of an “indefinite antecedent.” In this case, there is no antecedent at all!

If the objectives of good rhetoric are clarity and precision (and they are), the use of “they” with no specific antecedent should be avoided.

My high school chemistry professor used to say, “One day, I’d like to catch up with this ‘they’ fellow, and give him a piece of my mind . . . he goes around spreading rumors that cause trouble for all of us.”

Mr. “Dude”

no schoolThe better practice is to use a real subject for your sentence, as in: “The teacher said we have no school tomorrow” and “People call me ‘the Dude.” If you want to avoid revealing who “they” really is, use the passive voice: “I was told that we have no school tomorrow” and “I am called ‘the Dude.’” Another way to say it is: “I understand that we have no school tomorrow” and “Please call me ‘the Dude.

There is always a better way to express yourself than to use “they” with no specific antecedent.

For a somewhat related subject, see this post on the indefinite “you” problem.


“You” Are “One”

uncle sam
I’m talking to You!

In informal speech and writing, you can use the indefinite “you” all the time, as this sentence illustrates. It is convenient; and, unlike the indefinite “they,” it is fairly clear to whom the “you” refers: It refers to you, the person to whom I am writing or speaking. Moreover, because “you” is the same in both the singular and the plural, it is doubly useful and applicable.

Be aware of two subtleties:

In formal writing and speaking, “you” should be avoided. Use “one” instead. This is the indefinite third person form, and it is a substitute for “a person” or “anyone.” For example, you might want to say, “You never know . . . .” Well, in formal style, it would be better to say, “One never knows.” This may be a holdover from the old days, when formality and politeness required speaking to others in the third person (see Levels of Speech), or it may simply be good manners. It is truly a question of style. Politicians, as an example, will use “you” all the time because they want to appear “closer to the people,” even though it may appear to us as insincere and manipulative. Academicians will use “one” ad nauseam because it seems more formal, erudite and remote.

As a general proposition, use “a person” or “one” instead of “you” when you are not directly referring to the person to whom you are writing or speaking. If, in a letter or email, you provide a recipe or any “how to” instructions, do not use “you,” if the directions are generic, that is, they apply to anyone and everyone. Use either the imperative, or “one,” or passive voice.

"Put your pot on your stove"
“Put your pot on your stove”

Most well-formed instructions are in command form: “Take the first right, then bear left . . . etc.” I knew a woman who used to give recipes in this format: “First you take your pot, and you put it on your stove . . . then you measure your water . . . etc.” That is not good form, even informally, since this “you” is absolutely as indefinite as the indefinite “they.”

Vulgarities and Profanities

Washington Quote
Even if no one objected to your use of vulgarity and profanity on the grounds of morals, manners and piety, you should nevertheless avoid mindless recourse to the loose and sloppy use of taboo speech. Here is why:

First, we need to make a few distinctions:

profanityProfane” means having to do with the worldly, the non-religious. It also means blasphemous, sacrilegious, impious and disrespectful of another person’s beliefs. Thus, a profanity involves irreligious behavior.

Vulgar” means, among other things, unrefined, tasteless, rude, bawdy, dirty, smutty, raunchy and lewd. It comes from “vulgus” in Latin, which means “the common people.”

bad languageCursing” does not mean saying vulgar, crude or disrespectful words; no, it is a very specific form of profanity in which the speaker wishes to commit the target of the curse — a person or a thing — to the custody and control of Satan. In other words, the speaker “damns” the target, or at least expresses a wish that the target be consigned to perdition.

The old-fashioned terms “swearing” or “uttering oaths” referred to the prohibition of the Third Commandment, that is, not to take the Lord’s name in vain. It’s not “swearing” to use purple language, for so long as the Deity is left out of the formula.

daffy duckIt is fairly common to hear the ignorant, uneducated or careless use “cursing” (or “cussing”), swearing, and saying “dirty words” as interchangeable terms. They immediately tag themselves as persons who do not know what is what or what is up.

Second, consider effectiveness:

willie wonka
Mr. Wonka

Many of the taboo words are in such common use today that they have lost their impact. As a general matter, speakers resort to profanity and vulgarity whenever their vocabulary fails them. They are too lazy or inarticulate to come up with words to express what they truly think or feel. As their vocabularies shrink — as people abandon reading and thinking, and hence the need for precision in speech — the use of vulgarity and profanity rises. That is because these words, by being taboo, express some degree of emotion, opinion or attitude without actually saying or meaning anything. As they become more commonplace they lose their shock value. They become speech mannerisms, uttered without thought and ignored by those who hear them. They become ciphers — nothing words — devoid of meaning or purpose. Consider the vulgarities you most often hear or say. What do they mean, literally? Do they have anything to do with the other words in your phrase? Usually they are just an uncreative and unthinking synonym for “bad.”

Third, hold your fire for when you need it

vulgarityThere is a parallel here to the fable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” If you employ vulgarity and profanity indiscriminately, what verbal weapons remain when an occasion comes along that clearly could justify one? The world will just assume that you are being your usual potty mouth and will pay no attention. By exercising restraint and relying on articulate, standard English to navigate life’s daily frustrations, you will reserve your heaviest firepower for when you  really need it: And that might be never, especially if you develop the habit of being clear, careful and articulate in your speech!

Finally, don’t be “wishy-washy”

euphemismsAvoid all “semi-vulgarities,” those euphemistic almost-but-not-quite-vulgar, almost-profane, punch-pulling, lame, half-hearted attempts at forceful expression. These near-miss phrases are not only just as meaningless as their more potent cousins, but also they are tepid, milquetoast drivel! You know them: heck, darn, gosh, oh snap, cripes, jeepers, freakin’ and a few more. These are the worst kind of compromise: the speaker semi-expresses an attitude,  but loses the benefit of the impact of real vulgarity and profanity. And since impact (not meaning) is the only thing such usage can accomplish, these sterilized substitutes are completely useless – and unworthy of utterance at all!

In the same vein, try to avoid inelegant expressions of dubious origin. For example, anyone over fifty should be able to explain the origin of the verb “sucks” in the context of being bad or ineffective. The same goes for “blows” and oddities like “wazoo.”