Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Don't Ask Me: Writing Teacher Breaks Rules, Doesn't Care
Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker has a dark secret she has to reveal.
Here's my confession: In the summer, I don't care about rules. I pen prose that would give a good copy editor a heart attack. I don't mind if someone "lays" down for a nap, I get in the line for "ten items or less" and refrain from muttering fewer under my breath. The news "impacts"people and I don't flinch. It's very liberating. The down side of all this is when friends—or worse, new acquaintances—ask me word questions and I give wrong answers. It's not that I do a brain cleanse every June, it's that I can't articulate the rules when I'm not really thinking about them.
Yet, once the school year starts, when pencils and brains are sharpened, I can't even enjoy a thank-you note without noticing a misspelled definitely (not definately). (You know who you are.) So now that winter is almost here, I need to correct some of the bad advice I gave when the weather was warm and the livin' was easy.
insure vs. ensure
While waiting for a subway with a couple of cute doctors, one asked me the difference between insure and ensure. I replied that one has to do with insurance and the other is a tasty nutritional drink. Well, I wasn't completely wrong—to insure basically means to take out an insurance policy, as in "She paid extra at the post office to insure the package." But ensure means to make certain, as in "The parole officer will ensure that you make curfew." For the record, it is, as a proper noun, also a nutritional drink. Ensure is also often confused with assure, but to assure is to "make promises to, convince," as in "I assure you, we will leave the palace as we found it."
I assure you that I will ensure that you understand the difference, but I will not be able to insure you. Perhaps a tiny reptile can help you with that.
bring vs. take
Sometimes I get the dreaded, help-me-settle-an-argument-with- my-spouse question, such as when a friend asked me the difference between bring and take. Here's one that I never thought much about. I mumbled something to that effect and let the couple continue arguing during dinner. Later, I looked it up, and emailed a simple explanation: "Use bring when an object is transported towards you, use take when it's being moved away" (Diana Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual). So, "Please bring me the new books from the library and take the other ones back."Perfect! Yet, next time we were together, they asked me the same thing. Turns out the guy who brings objects to and fro does not care about the difference. His sweetie does care. They have decided to argue about it forever.
affect vs. effect
Darn this one's hide! I had no trouble until I taught it and confused myself. Last time someone asked me about affect/effect I confidently told her the exact wrong thing. When I saw her again, I admitted my mistake and we both got cross-eyed when I tried to explain it a second time. We poked our smartphones and were inundated with "easy" ways to remember the difference. Sigh. Info overload. I had to go home and check Garner's Modern American Usage. It confuses me to know that when I affect a situation, I have an effect on it but perhaps that will help you. Sample sentences help me more, so here we go.
affect = verb
Affect is usually a verb meaning "to influence" as in:
- How is the sale of our pink yacht going to affect our bottom line?
- Did mother's moving in affect your ability to hide the prisoner in the basement?
- The experimental drug affected not only the patient, but her husband, too.
Affect as a verb also means to simulate, or put on, as in:
- It gets on our nerves when Rolf affects a British accent."
effect = noun
Effect is usually a noun meaning "result." Nouns make sense with articles in front of them, verbs don't; this has an effect on my ability to get this straight.
- We're writing a cause and effect paper.
- Tamara was still feeling the effects of the pomegranate martini when she stumbled back to her condo.
- My personal effects are in my leopard-print fanny pack.
Yippee! Done. Wait, not so fast. I did say affect is usually a verb and effect is usually a noun. Effect can also be a verb meaning "to bring about" as in to effect change, andif you're a psychologist you might use affect as a noun meaning loosely, the experience of feeling an emotion. If you're not a shrink, feel free to forget that last one.
toward vs. towards
Another arguing couple asked me about this one. Having learned my lesson, before I answered, I looked it up. Voila! Towards is British English and toward is American. Their disagreement made sense because one half of the couple grew up in Scotland and the other grew up in the US, so they were both right! Unfortunately, they split up anyway.
Perhaps knowing the correct word doesn't solve all the world's problems, but it does solve some. Once I get my brain back in the fall, I love it when friends ask me questions. If I have to look up an answer, all the better because I learn something new, like that toward is always pronounced like "board." Now if someone could help me pronounce isthmus without sounding like Daffy Duck, I promise to say it right all year.
Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.