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Page 1 Word Usage Study Guide for the English Basics

Guidelines for Word Usage in English

General Information

We titled this section “Word Usage” because it covers more than grammar, which is normally considered to be correctly using the parts of speech. As we have a section entirely devoted to parts of speech, our concept of usage here dives into the meaning of words in a big way. Sometimes, the shades of meaning can be quite subtle and you really have to think about the message you want to convey before choosing a word. Some correct word choices have roots in grammar, but usage involves much more.

Grammar refers to the set of implicit rules that govern how words in a language are used to form sentences and express meaning. Speakers of a particular language, such as English, obey these rules so that others will understand what we are trying to say because they, too, know the rules and recognize the grammatical patterns. Grammar is quite “formal” in that sense.

Usage, on the other hand, is more informal. It refers to the socially accepted application of rules and regulations for how language is “used.” Usage is how words and phrases are actually used in a language and the community that speaks that language. It is usage that denotes a sentence as being a socially acceptable sentence, grammatically or a grammatically unacceptable sentence.

The Importance of Good Grammar and Word Usage

Many people say that a person’s word usage and grammar does not matter to them, but obvious errors are hard to overlook. Whether you are meeting someone for the first time or interviewing for a job, your audience is receiving an impression of who you are and what you are like, including how well you speak and write. You want that impression to be a good one, especially if you are in a new relationship or you are applying for a job.

There are, of course, times when you are simply “hanging” with friends and you can let a few errors slip with no unfortunate consequences. Few people speak in a formal manner 100% of the time. You do need to know what is correct, however, so you can automatically put that “company language” into effect when it’s needed. The more you know and practice, the less effort this will require. It will just “sound right” to you.

In the age of social media, it’s tempting to just “let it all rip” when you are casually posting online. You can write informally and still use good grammar. When posting content out there for all (including employers) to see, make sure that your posts sound like you know how to write English. You never know who will access your pages.

As they say, there is a time and place for everything. Outside of social media, such as when you are with friends or in a casual setting, sometimes it’s okay to overlook some of the strict rules and expectations about proper grammar and usage and let your language flow naturally, if not perfectly. In other situations, however, such as with an employer or in a more formal setting, it is important to “mind your p’s and q’s” and apply those grammatical rules in their entirety.

Using good grammar includes the use of full and complete sentences both in writing and speaking. Remember, to be complete, a sentence must have a subject and a verb, and it must express a complete thought. When you answer questions or create conversation in a formal setting using informal grammar and incomplete sentences, you will sound out of place. Generally speaking, one-word answers just won’t do in a formal setting. Included in this mindfulness of language should be your use of “slang” or informal diction like yeah, ’k, ’sup, etc.

Choosing the Right Word

Words are powerful tools. Selecting the right word to use in your writing or speaking is very important. Effective writers and speakers know that every word counts and every word matters, so they make their word choices carefully and ensure that the words they select are appropriate to their audience, purpose, and tone. If you do not carefully consider your word choice, you may send the wrong message to your audience.

Consider the Audience

When you select your words and create sentences, you should really consider your audience. Audience refers to the person or people to whom you are addressing your communication. Most of us would agree that the way we talk with our friends is not the way we speak to our parents or grandparents. This goes for written messages, too. Besides topics of conversation, our usage also changes. When you are addressing elders, potential employers, or anyone else you want to impress, it is important to consider your words carefully and structure them in a way that is grammatically acceptable. This does not mean that you need to sound like a walking dictionary or thesaurus in order to “impress” your audience, but it does mean that you probably want to avoid slang and the informal usage that filters into our more casual conversations and written communication.

Consider the Purpose

When you select words, you should also consider your purpose in communication. Understanding why you are communicating and what your purpose is will help you select appropriate diction. If, for example, you are trying to convince your parents to let you stay out past your usual curfew, you would use persuasive words that would appeal to their sense of reasoning and their emotions and set you up as a trustworthy person whose request they should at least consider. When you are trying to inform a friend of something, your tone may change (not only because of your purpose but also because of the audience) and you may select more informative, factual diction. As our purpose for communication changes, so too should our word choice and how we use our words, whether we are speaking or writing.

Consider the Tone

It is very easy to misinterpret tone, especially in written communication like email or social media postings. This is why word choice matters. Words all have a denotation (what they actually mean if you were to look them up in a dictionary), but they also have a connotation, which is their emotional impact. It would be the difference between calling someone pushy versus calling him or her assertive. Pushy has a negative connotation, but being assertive can be considered a positive thing (“assertively defending your rights,” for example). So word choice becomes important as we consider that not all words with basically the same meaning deliver the same message. Thus, usage is important to ensure that you are sending the message you intend to deliver.

Basic Usage Guidelines

There are several categories of usage guidelines that will help you to spot and prevent errors. Just being aware of these can help you avoid making errors that confuse the reader or listener. There are numerous online sites devoted to these topics, so be sure to access them for more practice in any area that is troublesome.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Multiple-meaning words (or homonyms) are words that have the same spelling and usually sound alike but have very different meanings, depending on context. The list of multiple-meaning words is long and sometimes there are three or more meanings for the same word. Sometimes, words that are spelled the same have different pronunciations, depending on what meaning is intended. Here are some examples of these types of words:

\[\begin{array}{|l|l|} \hline \mathbf{Word} & \mathbf{Common \,Meanings} \quad \quad \quad \quad \quad & \mathbf{Examples} \quad \quad \quad \quad \quad \\ \hline \mathbf{bark} & \text{sound a dog makes} & \text{"I heard the dogs}\, \mathbf{bark} \,\text{all night."} \\ \text{}& \text{tree covering} & \text{“The tree}\, \mathbf{bark} \,\text{was rough.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{bit} & \text{past tense of "bite"} & \text{"Alex}\, \mathbf{bit} \,\text{into the ripe tomato."} \\ \text{}& \text{a small amount} & \text{"Anya asked for a}\, \mathbf{bit} \,\text{more soup."} \\ \text{}& \text{bridle part in horse's mouth} & \text{"The horse refused the} \,\mathbf{bit} \text{."} \\ \hline \mathbf{bat} & \text{a small flying mammal} & \text{"At dusk, a}\, \mathbf{bat} \,\text{came out to eat insects."} \\ \text{}& \text{equipment used to strike a ball} & \text{“The batter swung the} \,\mathbf{bat}\, \text{at the ball.”} \\ \text{}& \text{verb meaning "to hit"} & \text{“The kitten likes to} \,\mathbf{bat}\, \text{at the catnip toy.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{bow} & \text{ornamentation for a gift} & \text{“The} \,\mathbf{bow} \,\text{matches the wrapping paper."} \\ \text{(rhymes}& \text{device to shoot arrows} & \text{“The archer shot arrows with his} \,\mathbf{bow} \,\text{.”} \\ \text{with "toe")}& \text{}& \text{} \\ \hline \mathbf{bow}& \text{bend to show respect} & \text{“You must} \,\mathbf{bow} \,\text{to the queen.”} \\ \text{(rhymes}& \text{to yield} & \text{“We will not} \,\mathbf{bow} \, \text{to public pressure!”} \\ \text{with "cow")}& \text{the front of a boat} & \text{“The captain went to the}\, \mathbf{bow} \,\text{of the ship.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{left} & \text{direction opposite "right"} & \text{“Turn} \,\mathbf{left}\, \text{at the stoplight.”} \\ \text{}& \text{past tense of the verb “leave”} & \text{”The movie was so boring, we}\, \mathbf{left} \,\text{.”} \\ \text{}& \text{remaining} & \text{“Chips were the only snacks} \,\mathbf{left}\, \text{.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{can} & \text{is able to} & \text{“} \mathbf{Can} \,\text{you reach the top shelf?”} \\ \text{}& \text{container} & \text{“That} \,\mathbf{can}\, \text{of soup sat unopened.”} \\ \text{}& \text{to dismiss from a job (slang)} & \text{“My boss will}\, \mathbf{can}\, \text{me if I’m late again.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{grave} & \text{serious} & \text{“The victim was in}\, \mathbf{grave}\, \text{condition.”} \\ \text{}& \text{burial place} & \text{“Many mourners stood by the} \,\mathbf{grave}\, \text{.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{hatch} & \text{create a plan} & \text{“The thieves had to} \,\mathbf{hatch}\, \text{a clever plan.} \\ \text{}& \text{emerge from an egg} & \text{“The chicks will}\, \mathbf{hatch} \,\text{in about a week.”} \\ \text{}& \text{opening} & \text{“The water flowed into the boat through} \\ \text{}& \text{} & \text{an open}\, \mathbf{hatch} \, \text{.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{monitor} & \text{supervising person} & \text{“The teacher left a student}\, \mathbf{monitor}\, \text{in charge.”} \\ \text{}& \text{watch or listen} & \text{“Does the government} \,\mathbf{monitor}\, \text{our email?”} \\ \text{}& \text{display screen} & \text{“Check the} \, \mathbf{monitor}\, \text{in the airport for flight times.”} \\ \hline \mathbf{sentence} & \text{a series of words with meaning} & \text{“Amy had to write the}\, \mathbf{sentence}\, \text{100 times.”} \\ \text{}& \text{punishment} & \text{“A judge delivered the criminal’s}\, \mathbf{sentence} \, \text{."} \\ \hline \end{array}\]