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CYBURBIAR

Web Site Helps You Mind Your Ps and Qs

January 18, 1998|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember those teachers who red-penciled every sample of your writing to point out errors in grammar, usage and spelling?

Now they're on the Web.

Several sites have sprung up to wage war on split infinitives, misspellings, improper punctuation, double negatives, mismatched pronouns, redundancies and bad word choices in English. Some of the proprietors of these usage sites have gone so far as to employ search engines to hunt down dreaded errors and compile statistics to prove how widespread they have become.

These are the kind of people who tend to get the seat next to me on a cross-country flight. Most of their sites come in three basic flavors--nagging, disparaging or superior.

But there is one major exception--the plainly named but introspective and good-humored "Common Errors in English" site created by Paul Brians of Washington State University.

Actually, Brians has created several interesting sites concerning literature and writing. You can access them from his home page at http://www.wsu.edu/%7Ebrians.

In his introduction to "Common Errors," he admits that his degree is in comparative literature, not composition or linguistics, so he's not a certified expert. But as someone who simply admires good writing, he created this site to help students "avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak."

This is a practical site that recognizes the best way to use language effectively is to know its rules.

"You have a right to express yourself in any manner you please," Brians writes, "but if you wish to communicate effectively, you should use nonstandard English only when you intend to, rather than falling into it because you don't know any better."

The site then goes on to examine dozens of examples of common errors. Near the top of the alphabetical list is the distinction between "affect" and "effect." I admit I've never been able to quite master this distinction, compounded by the fact that each of these words has a different meaning.

Brians doesn't apologize for the confusion.

"Hey, nobody ever said English was logical," he writes. "Just memorize it and get on with your life."

In a similar manner, he goes on to examine the differences between "imply" and "infer," "adapt" and "adopt" and "prophecy" and "prophesy."

In his section on "farther" and "further," he writes that some authorities insist "farther" should refer only to physical distance, and "further" should be used only when referring to time or degree. Brians doesn't seem too concerned about this one, but he warns it can make some people "really testy."

Brians explains that the Catholic doctrine of "immaculate conception" is too often confused with that of "virgin birth." The former refers to the belief that Mary conceived without inheriting original sin, while the latter is the belief that Jesus was born to a woman who was a virgin.

He warns that "dolly" should not be confused with "handcart." The former is a flat platform with wheels, the latter is a "vertically oriented two-wheeled device with upright handles." He takes on words that are commonly misused, pointing out that "historic" should always refer to something that is of interest to historians or simply famous in history. All too often, the term is used to describe something that is simply old.

Brians mentions common redundancies, such as references to the "HIV virus."

And here's one that was a real surprise to me. The "eval" in medieval means ages. So, whenever we talk about the "medieval ages," we're really saying "Middle Ages ages."

Perhaps my favorite section of this site is "Non-Errors," in which Brians takes on "Those usages people keep telling you are wrong, but which are actually standard in English."

Split infinitives should no longer be strictly avoided, he writes. For example, the phrase at the beginning of the "Star Trek" show that describes the ship's mission as one "to boldly go where no one has gone before," should technically begin, "to go boldly . . . ."

The phrase used on the show is offensive only to the "hypercritical," Brians writes.

As for ending a sentence with a preposition, Brians mentions Winston Churchill's wry comment that, "From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."

Brians also takes on those who insist that the word "loan" should be used only as a noun, as well those who say a sentence can never begin with a conjunction. Furthermore, he believes that those who insist the word "hopefully" can only mean "in a hopeful fashion" display, in his words, "more hopefulness than realism."

I don't agree with everything Brians says. He maintains that the word "between" can be used to refer to more than two objects.

Unlike most people on the Web who lord over correct usage sites, Brians recognizes the fact that language evolves. The ebbs and flows in usage can sometimes set one's teeth on edge, but they can also make language a dynamic, living entity.

Those who maintain language must remain static should be forced to read Chaucer from the original texts.

*Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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