Basics of writingConfusing words

Grammar and style tips for authors: Part 2c—Final installment on prepositions

From Rick:

I’m finishing up this short series on prepositions before moving on to other topics. At the end, I’m going to highlight a common mistake of writing “use to” in place of “used to” as in “I used to take long walks whenever I needed to think.”

FORBID to (v) (formal)
—“I forbid you to go out with Harry,” her father told her.

FORBID from (v) (informal)
—“I forbid you from going out with Harry,” her father told her.

FORECLOSE on (v): [mortgaged property]
The bank threatened to foreclose on his house if he did not bring the payments up to date in thirty days.

IDENTICAL with (preferred by purists), to (v): [something else]
—In terms of taste, the store-brand ketchup is identical with the brand-name stuff.
—In terms of taste, the store-brand ketchup is identical to the brand-name stuff.

Here’s a quote from Garner’s Modern English Usage that speaks to this issue: “identical takes either with or to. Historically, with has been considered better because one has identity with something or someone, not to it. Identical to was not widely used until the mid-20th century. The OED’s illustrative examples contain only the phrase identical with. But today, especially in AmE, to predominates.”

In other words, use whichever one you prefer, but to is likely to sound less stilted.

IMPOSE on (preferably not “upon”) (v): [a person]
—May I impose on you to help with the charity event this weekend?

INDEPENDENT (of (not “from”) (adj): [something else]
—My personal preference for red wine is independent of whether it’s considered a proper pairing with the food I’m eating.

INFRINGE (none) (v, transitive):
—They claim that his use of the name infringes their copyright.

INFRINGE on (preferably not “upon” (v, intransitive): [a right]
—There is considerable pressure from lobbyists that any attempt to pass legislation on gun ownership will infringe on gun owners’ second amendment rights.

INQUIRE into (v): [situations]
—He said he would inquire into the status of the building permit.

INQUIRE of (v): [people]
—He said he would inquire of the police officers involved in the arrest.

INQUIRE after (v): [people]
—He said he would inquire after John’s family.

MASTERY of (v): [a skill or knowledge]
—She has an excellent mastery of Russian.

MASTERY over (v): [a person]
—When King George III attempted mastery over the American colonists… you know how well that worked out.

MILITATE against (v): [an outcome]
—His inexperience militates against his getting an early promotion.

OBLIVIOUS of (preferred), to (adj): [a danger, an opportunity]
—The children were oblivious of the danger the stray dog posed and fearlessly tried to pet it.
—Not being an experienced gambler, Shawn was oblivious to the chances of losing more than winning.

OFF (none, not “of”) (prep):
—His mother told him to get his feet off the table.

—His mother told him to get his feet off of the table.

PREFERABLE to (not “than”); over (adj): [an alternative]
—Getting a C in a class isn’t the best, but it’s preferable to failing.
—Getting a C in a class is preferable over failing.

RECONCILE (none) (v): [to restore harmony]
The mediator was able to reconcile the two warring factions.

RECONCILE with (v): [a person]
—The divorced couple were fortunately able to reconcile with each other over visitation rights with their children.

RECONCILE to (v): [a situation]
—He eventually became reconciled to his position in life.

RETICENT about (adj): [speaking; a topic]
—Jeff was reticent about his plans for the future.

SHIVER from (v): [cold]

SHIVER at (v): [something frightening]

VEXED with (adj): [someone]
—Dave was vexed with his brother, who failed to mow the grass after saying he would.

VEXED about, at: [something]
—Dave was vexed at having to mow the grass after his brother had said he’d do it.

Finally, I want to point out an error I sometimes see writers making regarding the verb phrase “USED TO” in the sense of being accustomed to doing something or having done it in the past. The mistake I see is that they write:

[CORRECT] “I use to exercise a lot more when I was younger.”

instead of

[INCORRECT] “I use to exercise a lot more when I was younger.”

On that note, i’m going to close out this series with an exploration of the robust meanings of the word “USE” both as a noun and as a verb.

What interesting—and something I suspect most of you never paid attention to is the difference in pronunciation of “use” depending on it being used as a noun or a verb.

As a noun, “use” is pronounced with an “s” sound at the end (yoos): I have little use for my old college textbooks because most are outdated.

As a verb, it’s pronounced with a ‘z” sound at the end (yooz), not to be confused with the backwoods slang, “Youse children better not be gettin’ into trouble out there!”

Here are some example sentences, but certainly not all the uses of the noun.

—He made good use of his spare time.
—She made use of the camera in his phone to capture the moment. cheating.
—The slang word “cool” has been in use for several decades.
—He gave her the use of his SUV for the weekend.
—After the accident, he no longer had use of his legs.
—My brother put his education to practical use.
—He was a packrat and saved things he thought might be of use someday.
—It’s no use in arguing with my sister. She thinks she’s always right.
—He has no use for modern art.

And here are some of the uses as a verb.

—It’s better to use a wrench rather than pliers to remove a nut.
—I need to use the men’s room.
—She used him only because he could buy her the things she wanted.
—I used (up) all my trust fund to put myself through college.
—Migrant workers are used as cheap labor to harvest crops.
—Prisoners in that country were used cruelly.
—The fence could use a new coat of paint.
—I know he’s using. (meaning taking drugs)
—He used to go every day to the gym.

Note in this last sentence that the correct phrase is “used to” not “use to.”

I see people writing “use to” in this sense, which is incorrect. You need the PAST TENSE of the verb here. “Use to” is correct when referring to the sense of employing something for a purpose:

—Some writers still use a typewriter to write.
—What do you use to stir your coffee, a spoon or a stir stick?

I suspect that part of the problem with “use to” is how we say it in everyday speech. To say “used to” properly you need to take a slight pause between saying the “d” and “to” and that’s slightly awkward unless you’re talking slowly. That’s my theory anyway as to why this error occurs.

When writing dialogue it’s fine you write how your characters talk, but that doesn’t mean you can throw grammar out the window. You still need to write it as “used to.”


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