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Wood on Words: Columnist lists common mistakes

Barry Wood

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have corrected one of the following. Come to think of it, I guess that’s part of what I’ve been paid for all these years, so I should say I wish I STILL had a dollar. ...

Entitle or title: The Associated Press style is to confine the use of “entitled” to “a right to do or have something.” For example, “With this coupon you’re entitled to one free sandwich.”

It shouldn’t be used the same as “titled,” indicating the name of something.

With all the hubbub over entitlements these days, it wouldn’t hurt to cut down on “entitled” where it isn’t necessary.

Impeachment: It’s not a good thing to be impeached, but it’s not as bad as being found guilty of the things you were impeached for.

There’s a big difference between being accused of something and actually being convicted — punishment comes to mind.

To “impeach” is “to challenge or discredit” or “accuse.” In the case of public officials, it means “to bring before the proper tribunal on charges of wrongdoing.”

In the case of a president of the United States, the House of Representatives can vote to impeach (it has done so twice), but it’s up to the Senate to convict (it hasn’t done so yet).

Damage, damages: Storms cause “damage.” Then insurance representatives assess the “damages” — the cost in dollars. Juries and judges also determine “damages.” The plural should be confined to such monetary uses, which certainly can be damaging.

Presently: Webster’s says using it to mean “now” or “at present” is “objected to by some.” And I am one of those objectors. “Presently” means “in a little while; soon,” and that’s all it should be used for.

Correct: “I’ll be with you presently.” (It won’t be long now.)

Incorrect: “Presently, I’m busy, but I’ll be with you soon.” (Just for that, I’m leaving.)

People, persons: This one is kind of a litmus test for pedantry. “Pedant” used to be a synonym for “schoolmaster.”

Nowadays, as Webster’s puts it, a pedant is “a person who puts unnecessary stress on minor or trivial points of learning, displaying a scholarship lacking in judgment or sense of proportion.”

And if that weren’t enough, the second definition is “a narrow-minded teacher who insists on exact adherence to a set of arbitrary rules.” I think we’ve all been in that classromm at one time or another.

For a pedant, “persons,” not “people,” is the plural of “person,” especially “for small, specific numbers,” according to “Garner’s Modern American Usage.”

Most people use “people” for the plural in all cases, except in established phrases such as “missing persons.” I vote with the people.

And “peoples” is the proper plural for “people” in the collective sense of a nation, race or other distinctive group, as in “the peoples of southern Africa.”

Irregardless: This is NOT a good word. Webster’s calls its use “nonstandard or humorous.” If you’re using it to be funny, make sure your audience will laugh with you, not at you.

There are very few words that I can’t find a soft spot in my heart for, but this is one of them. Stick with “regardless.”

Punctuation Station

Where have all the commas gone? The standard in American English is to include a comma in figures for thousands: for example, 3,000 people or $3,000.

Perhaps this is disappearing because one of the most common four-figure expressions is the calendar year, which is written without a comma. But a date should be looked at as a name rather than a quantity. And we don’t insert punctuation marks into names.

For quantities in the thousands, you need that comma.

So, the year is 2011, but it’s the 2,011th year.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.