The Other Half of Eloquence


Please find Part I of this two-part series here. Contrary to what many American college students might suppose, professors do not typically take pleasure in seeing their students struggle or fail.  One sign of good will towards students is the wish to spare them embarrassing moments as they look for jobs, submit graduate school applications, and start their careers.  Other persons in colleges and universities share this sentiment, and the contribution of professors is usually modest in comparison with, say, everyone working in an office of career development.  But professors probably can offer a few things that others cannot.

It was in this spirit that I decided to write this two-part essay. As noted in the first part, certain errors in English usage are liabilities for students, and even more so in their lives beyond King’s.  Perhaps some students believe that such careful attention to language and usage is necessary only for a select number of their peers, such as debaters and aspiring journalists.  But this is false.  In many different contexts, well educated persons will disdain certain errors in English usage (and grammar).  From such disdain, judgments about professional competence may arise.

As two examples, think of the cover letter for a job or the personal essay for an application to graduate school.  Here is one context where a serious error is a serious liability.  Most students know this, so they should be able to extrapolate from these two examples and recognize that a comparable error in any professional context (even an office party) can also be a liability.

Other aspects of this matter should be considered.  Under the leadership of President Thornbury, King’s is becoming better known, especially in the New York area.  But the college is still unknown to many persons, which means that if such persons are reviewing a cover letter or application to graduate school, they may be highly “tentative” in assessing the candidacy of anyone from King’s (meaning an alumnus or alumna or a currently enrolled student).  In these circumstances, a conspicuous error in a cover letter or personal essay might lead the person to assess unfavorably both the candidate and the college.  Finally, because King’s is still not widely known, the applicant who is a current King's student or a graduate of King's and makes an egregious error is unlikely to get the same “slack”  as the applicant from Columbia or NYU.  (Is this unfair? Probably. But it’s better to acknowledge this last point than to ignore it.)

Listed below are six more recurring errors in English usage.  When combined with my first list of six, you could take the two lists as a compendium of sorts, a “dirty dozen” for today’s college student—errors to be avoided, and for that reason, committed to memory (ideally).

Impact/Impactful:  With well educated and well spoken persons over the age of forty, beware of using “impact” as a verb, because they might cringe and tell you that it should be used exclusively as a noun.  “Impactful” is of even more recent vintage, and it’s even more deserving of a cringe--or something worse.  (To my ear, it sounds awful, and I cannot abide it.)  The current popularity of “impact” as a verb must be attributed to the unwillingness of many Americans to master the words “affect” and “effect.”  If you want to become part of a highly exclusive club, learn the different meanings of “affect” and “effect” (as both nouns and verbs) and use the two words regularly.  Membership of Mensa will always exceed the membership of this new club.

It’s/Its:  I run a risk here, because some readers will question the inclusion of this pair, perhaps wondering how anyone could do satisfactory work in college without knowing the difference between these two words.  I defend its inclusion because I have seen undergraduates, graduate students, doctors, lawyers, and yes, even professors confusing these two words.  Why the confusion?  Because the possessive singular in English is usually formed by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” after the last letter in a singular noun (so the possessive of “cat” is “cat’s”).  But here the possessive lacks an apostrophe (e.g., “That coat is missing one of its buttons.”) and the other word is a contraction, which means “it is” ("It’s raining, my friend, so wear your galoshes.”).

Literally:  I have the impression that this wild dog may have been tamed, at least a bit.  Several of my students tell me that they and their peers fully understand the difference between literal and figurative language and know that to use the word “literally” for exaggeration or a bold metaphor is wrong (example:  “I arrived home at three in the morning, literally dead from exhaustion.”)  Let’s hope that my students are right.

Reluctant/Reticent:  At some point in the last decade or so, many educated persons in the United States started treating these words as synonyms.  They are not.  “Reticent” means “reserved” or “unforthcoming,” especially with respect to personal matters, whereas “reluctant” means “unwilling” or “disinclined.”  The nouns are, respectively, “reluctance” and “reticence.”  One of my favorite scholarly books published in the United States in the last two decades is The Repeal of Reticence (1996) by Rochelle Gurstein, who has spoken at King’s on several occasions.

Transpire:  This word is not a more elevated synonym for “happen” or “occur.”  It means “to leak out” or “to become known” (“In time, the facts of his boorish behavior transpired.”).

Unique:  A few years ago, I thought that progress was being made here, because more Americans seemed to know that this word does not admit of degrees.  Thus, one cultural artifact cannot be “more unique” than another.  Similarly, one should not say that something is “somewhat unique,” “rather unique,” “highly unique,” or “very unique” (although “truly unique” or “genuinely unique” seem acceptable).  If you’ve forgotten, “unique” means “one of a kind.”

Because so many educated persons make mistakes with these twelve words, the incentive to know them should be clear.  If you do master them, don’t be surprised if your friends, colleagues, and supervisor soon consider you a language maven and begin to ask you questions about English usage and grammar.  And if that leads to a raise or promotion, I expect that you won’t object.