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Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess: The Terrible Twos

By Diane Sandford, Published on November 29, 2003
Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. She has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

Every parent is familiar with the "terrible twos," that unpleasant phase in childhood development marked by frequent tantrums and ongoing battles for independence. The grammatical "terrible twos," those words that have related meanings but are not interchangeable, wreak similar havoc on writers. If you do any kind of critical or formal writing, you need to know the difference. Dr. Spock can't help you with these terrible twos, but perhaps the Grammar Goddess can. Let's take a look at five of these troublesome duos.

affect/effect

Quiz:                Will the medicine affect/effect our sleep? 

Answer:         Affect and effect are commonly confused as verbs, but rarely as nouns. Here's a useful mnemonic: Recall the phrase "cause and effect." [Curiously, the verb effect also means "to cause."] Affect, on the other hand, is almost always used as a verb meaning "to influence." Thus, the correct answer is affect, unless the verb is meant to be a synonym for cause (unlikely).

"Except when your topic is psychology, you will seldom need the noun affect."  Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (1994). And who can forget Basil Fawlty's comment: Last night I accused my wife of having too many affectations, and she replied, "Moi?" (one of my husband's favorite and most overused lines). Merriam Webster lists eight different definitions for effect as a noun. When in doubt, consult a dictionary.

continuous/continual

Continuous means without interruption; continual means at recurring intervals. Consider using intermittent for continual, and incessant or uninterrupted for continuous. If the continual intervals are known, use a more precise word, e.g., annual, hourly, etc. Perhaps often or commonly would be better in some cases. 

Some examples:

[Read: I felt the call would never end!]

          [Read: I was interrupted frequently during the day.]

Note:    Some dictionaries list continuous and continual as synonyms. Thus, the war between proscriptive and descriptive dictionaries continues. Both kinds of dictionaries are good, but unless you eat grammar books for breakfast, your formal writing should be conservative. 

farther/further 

Use farther exclusively for physical distance (literal); use further for degree and everything else (figurative). Of course, no one would say after farther consideration or go one step farther in an investigation. Since the "step" is figurative rather than literal, simply replace farther with further. End of story? Unfortunately, not quite.

Some grammar books claim the rule is too rigid and that figurative references to distance may take farther. Even expert writers ignore the rule. Yes, language evolves. And, yes, to some degree language is what people speak, not what the grammatical experts claim it should be. Nevertheless, enough readers believe in this rule that it's a mistake to ignore it. Grammar guru Bryan A. Garner (Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford 2003) says, "In the best usage, farther refers to physical distances, further to figurative distances."

infer/imply

To imply is to hint or suggest, but not explicitly. To infer is to draw an explicit conclusion. Of course, it is possible to infer, by a logical mistake, an idea that was never implied. Usually, the speaker/writer implies and the listener/reader infers. Perhaps one reason for the confusion is that the nouns inference and implication can both mean a proposition arrived at by deduction. Inferences are drawn; deductions are made. Grammarians commonly insist these distinctions are useful, but the misuse of infer for imply occurs precisely because people do not find the distinctions useful.

like/as

Like is a preposition; as is a conjunction. What does this mean? Like can only be followed by a noun or noun phrase. The word as introduces a subordinate clause. A clause, unlike a phrase, has a subject and predicate. A predicate is usually a verb with or without objects, complements, and modifiers.

Some examples:

[Use as to introduce a clause.]

[In this sentence, like is used as a preposition.]

Consider the infamous ad campaign for a cigarette (which was allowed in the olden days) that ignited an uproar among authors by using like as a conjunction: "Winston tastes good like (correction: as) a cigarette should."  In response to this slogan, poet W.H. Auden remarked that, "This seems to be standard American but not English." Rule of thumb: If as, as if, or as though makes sense, then like is incorrect.  

QUIZ:               His second paper was unintelligible, as with/like the first paper he wrote.

Answer:        First, recast this ugly, awkward sentence. Second, as with sure smells like a preposition. (In fact, it is.) The phrase "the first paper he wrote" is a noun phrase masquerading as a clause. The sentence requires like, not as with. Nothing is simple!

Frequently like is used as a filler in informal speech. It's, like, unacceptable in formal writing.

Grammatically correct formal writing can be compared to playing a musical instrument. Unless you practice regularly, you can easily embarrass yourself by playing the wrong notes. A musician can hear the musical miscues during performance, but an author is usually unaware of grammatical errors until a reader discovers the blunders.  Conquer the grammatical terrible twos, and you can rest assured that your readers will not throw tantrums.

Additional Resources

For additional discussion of this topic, consult Bernstein's The Careful Writer (Atheneum, 1965; reprinted by Free Press, 1995), and the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd edition, Harper & Row, 1985).

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.