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Remember the Little Words!
Okay. So you can use "antidisestablishmentarianism" in a sentence, and can even suggest from memory that we use large quantities of trinitrophenylmethylnitramine to help accomplish that goal. While we're all very proud of your staggering command of the English language – and of the fact that you've managed to store an entire dictionary somewhere in your left lung – it's a sad fact that our poor little conjunctions and their ilk are very often underestimated. How you choose to connect words – even down to very slight tense differences – will either boost or dampen the power of the entire thought. In some instances, the wrong conjunction will make a sentence grammatically unstable, or even outright incorrect.
I've tried to list a few suggestions and common mistakes here. Please let me know if you have any additions. I'll try to add a few, too, as I spot and remember them. If I have a literary illustration of each article, it will be posted to help demonstrate just how powerful these quirky little words really are.
Remember the Little Words#willwould
Remember the Little Words#itsits
Remember the Little Words#thenthan
Remember the Little Words#whileawhile
"Will" and "Would"
These similar words should never be interchanged as carelessly as they often are. One is more hypothetical than the other, and it needs extra words to be used correctly.
"Will" is inquiring about something that's happening, expected to happen, or desired to happen.
"Would" is tougher. It's strictly hypothetical, used if some condition needs to be fulfilled before an event will happen. In such, "would" usually needs to have a qualifier of some sort attached... "if" or "were."
"Will you go to the store for me?" is correct.
"Would you go to the store for me?" is incomplete.
"Would you go to the store for me if I gave you the money?" has been completed.
Application in Literature
This comes from Les Miserables, American musical version. It's sung by a young man, Marius, faced with nearly certain death in a hopeless battle.
"Life without Cosette
Means nothing at all.
Would you weep, Cosette,
Should Marius fall?
Will you weep, Cosette,
In a superbly executed, subtle twist, the author has managed to turn Marius from wondering what would happen if, hypothetically, he died, to wondering what will happen when he dies. Note that the grammar rule about a qualifier stuck: "Should Marius fall?"
That about does it for "will" and "would." Onward!
"It's" and "Its"
(Suggested by [Askoga])
This one is a personal pet peeve. While it is a nasty, quirky little exception to English grammatical rules, it's one that enough people know that you'll look like an utter fool if you don't understand it. And hey, the last thing you need is a good paper or story being discredited on a technicality, right?
"It's" is a contraction. It's the shortened form of "it has" or "it is." It cannot mean anything else.
"Its" is the possessive form of "it." If you want to indicate the property of "it," ("the kitten adored its tail," for example,) then don't use an apostrophe.
"Its a great idea." is incorrect.
"It's head looked startlingly like a rejected football." is incorrect.
"It's a silly rule, I know," is correct.
"The puppy was roughly as smart as your average boulder, but its heart was in the right place" is correct.
Again, understand this rule. Don't make this mistake. This mix-up will discredit you faster than sticking a chocolate buffet in a Weight Watchers' convention.
"Then" and "Than"
(Suggested by [Kaimee])
(The clock thinks that I'm late for class. I'll believe it against my better judgement... section incomplete.)
Okay...this is one of those very instinctive things that's hard to explain, so bear with me. No matter how complicated I make it sound, it's a very simple difference. Nothing tricky like the pair above.
"Then" can indicate several things, usually related in some way to either a place in time or consequences. It's an adverb, i.e., it describes a verb.
Here's a handy-dandy, specific list of what it can mean, in the form definition – sample sentence:
At that time – I couldn't go a single minute back then without wanting to strangle him.
Next in time, space, or order – I wrote, and then I wrote some more. And then the blue screen of death reared its hideous, mocking visage.
In addition; moreover; besides – Buying on the net is quick and easy...but then there's the little matter of six to eight weeks for shipping.
In that case; accordingly – If he still snores, then plug the other nostril, too. Profanity will quickly replace that awful racket.
As a consequence; therefore – The mystery, then, is solved...not to mention a whole lot simpler than we made it.
It can also be used in the strict form "but then." This phrase is used to qualify, balance, or excuse the statement immediately before it. Example: The petite old spinster acted as though she owned the entire block. But then, she did."
(The bolded definitions were cited nearly verbatim from www.dictionary.com .)
"Than" connects two words and, in the process, creates a relationship between them, especially in citing differences. It's a conjunction, i.e., it connects parts of speech.
"While" and "Awhile"
"While" is 1. a noun that denotes a short time, 2. a conjunction that means "at the same time that" and finally 3. a verb meaning the passage of time, but I've never seen it used that way.
"While" is countable, so you can say "a while" or "the while" like for all other countable nouns.
"Awhile" is an adverb that means "for a while" or "for a short time."
Correct usage is presented:
I waited while cars went by. (while, conjunction) I waited at the same time as cars went by.
I waited for a while. (while, noun) I waited for a moment.
Stay awhile. (awhile, adverb) Stay for a moment.
Okay...so it's very incomplete as of yet. These are the sort of peeves that I only notice as I see them, so I'll add to this as I remember.
Back to Grammar and Spelling
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