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.

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Monday November 22nd 2010, 1:29 AM
Comment by: Nini S. (dallas, TX)
Very nice article. Please do a message about pronouncing either and neither. I am sure we would all like a knowledgeable opinion on that.
Monday November 22nd 2010, 2:31 AM
Comment by: John M.
Margaret, In bring vs. take you write, "Here's one I never though
much about." Perhaps this was written in the summer when the
"though" processes were on vacation!

[Fixed! —Ed.]

If we hold that the rules for grammar, spelling, and punctuation serve any useful purpose can we afford to ignore them certain months of the year? There is a good reason that English is called the "silent killer." In this we all are vulnerable year round not just from September to June. Your summer prose that might give
an editor a heart attack might very well cost you a job, promotion, perhaps
even the love of your life; -the person who admires above all qualities the
willingness to proofread one's own copy! I would think there is something there to care about.
Monday November 22nd 2010, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I used to be very picky about the ensure/insure difference (I probably became addicted to the distinction by a series of English teachers in high school). But, afterward, I started finding in professionally edited prose the one word I wasn't expecting. My exasperation vanished when I saw it was one of those distinctions that tends to grow to mythological proportions: the entries for both ensure and insure in MW, for instance, point to each other. I abandoned both the feeling of indignation and myself to the fact that they were widely considered synonyms.
Monday November 22nd 2010, 8:33 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
To Nina -

With no grammatic credentials but a strong interest in everyday history, it is my belief that the earlier pronunciation of the'ei' dipthong in these words was 'eeee', not 'iiiii'. But when the English invited Germans to rule their land that family could not be bothered to change their pronunciation from the standard Germanic "ei" which is long 'i'. Out of politeness or just knowing where the power lay, the upper class English followed them, and the whole island followed THEM.

The U.S., however, had already been saying 'eeether' for generations, and so maintained, until Holllywood needed a stock pronounciation, and to be classy, chose 'iiiither'. Except when they want to show that a person is is low-class. It spread over the country faster than it did over England.

Reminds me of 'often', where the 't' appeared out of nowhere about 15 years ago and now is de rigeur. I ought to accept such alterations as basic changes in a moving language, but both 'ofTen' and 'Iither' bug the pants off me.
Monday November 22nd 2010, 9:02 AM
Comment by: John S.
Thanks, Margret, for your stimulating article. You have chosen a profession that will be in everlasting demand: the language soldier. I wonder what kind of scars your students will see after 40-some years of battle? I remember one of my high school teachers getting apoplectic over the word impact. She always reminded us that impacted is a medical condition. And thanks for pointing out that a certain insurance company has chosen a reptile to represent their company. Perhaps Anthem should start a series of anaconda commercials.
Monday November 22nd 2010, 10:49 AM
Comment by: John M.
ED. Oh, person of great compassion! Why would you bother
to correct the spelling of an author whose summer prose might
cause you a heart attack; - a person who does not even care if you
are so afflicted? Good English even as good hygiene is something
to be practiced year round and not just during the school year.

[Here on the Visual Thesaurus, at least, good English knows no holiday. —Ed.]
Monday November 22nd 2010, 7:12 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C. (Palmyra, PA)
Thanks you, Margaret. I constantly struggle with affect vs. effect. I always forget if I'm supposed to be affected by the effect, or effected by the affect. I have a pretty good handle on the other classic grammatical no-no's, but I'm often tortured over when I should use either of these two spawn-of-Satan words. I thank you for the examples that will make my burden less painful.

And may I put in a request for a lesson on the correct use of ";" and "," in conjunction with the word "however?" I constantly see a comma when a semi-colon is called for; however, I try not to let my irritation over this common error have an effect on my affect.
Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Margaret P. (Brooklyn, NY)
Thanks, Kathleen! I just went over semi-colon use in my class, and I told them to read the VT article "Punctuation Points: Joining Independent Clauses." ( http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wc/2501/) Yet, they continue to mix it up. Sigh.

And John M--it's November! I care, I care! I'm very happy the editors completed my thoughT.
Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Melissa T. (Orlando, FL)
I appreciated this article. As a writer, people are always asking me nitty-gritty questions about grammar. I don't always have the right answer, but I'm eager to go look it up! Also, creative writing and copy editing don't always go hand-in-hand.
Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Doublygifted (Mobile, AL)
While I appreciate your article and for the most part agree, one sentence jumped out at me that I just could not let slide.

Regarding affect and effect:
If you're not a shrink, feel free to forget that last one.

I adamantly oppose that suggestion, for this reason: The psychology of affect and the shame that triggers it is emerging as one of the primary factors in destroying a growing intellect, causing a student to avoid the pain of "mind-shame" as it is now being called by Dr. Donald L. Nathanson. His work on affect and cognition is tremendously important from my perspective as a college language arts instructor. Having failed to find one small paragraph or subtopic that would succinctly make my argument, I instead refer you to the wonderful indepth interview that David Bolton conducted with Dr. Nathanson for the Children of the Code project. You can find it here:

I suggest that when a child is humbled, humiliated, or mortified by errors in reading at an early age, their instinctive reaction is to avoid that experience again at all costs. This, I truly believe, is more responsible for attention issues, behavioral issues and avoidance of scholarly effort than any other type of event in a child's life.

The mind-shame that psychologists like Dr. Nathanson are just now starting to identify could well be the reason that Affect is something we should pay MORE attention to...as teachers at any rate.
Wednesday November 24th 2010, 4:01 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Thank you so much for your article Magret, very interesting for me to do the difference ensure and assure , bring and take ,effect affect etc....Whatever you are, whatever you think about of the contrast is obvious.
What do you think about of BRING and BRING OVER? Both are the same meaning?
I console myself because in French language you have as much nuances, subtilities.
Monday November 29th 2010, 10:02 PM
Comment by: Olga H.
Is it correct to say texted (I texted her yesterday)or text-ted (I text-ted her yesterday). Sorry you cannot hear the two words...but I hear people say it all the time, especially new reporters. I say texted with the e silent is the correct way.
Monday December 5th 2011, 1:50 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Two "effect" vs. "affect" articles on the V. T. in one day! I explained the differences in rhyme a couple of years ago on YouTube:


--Phil Holland

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