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Don’t Elicit Illicit Behavior

When Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood opened the 2013 Country Music Awards with a parody on Obamacare, one website posted:  “This isn’t the first time Paisley and Underwood have used a current controversy to illicit laughs and applause during a CMA opening.”

The musicians’ routine did just what they wanted it to do. It made people laugh. That is, it elicited or drew out the response they wanted. And there was nothing illicit or illegal about it. It was simply done to make people laugh over something that many people were already making fun of.

Like many other “confusables,” it’s common to see words that sound somewhat alike misused at every turn. Funny how such a small difference in spelling makes such a big difference in meaning.

  • Use elicit when you mean bring about, draw out, evoke, motivate.
  • Save illicit to describe something that is unlawful, criminal, or immoral. (If it helps, remember illicit starts with ill, so link that thought with ill advised.)

Speaking of immoral or illegal, do you know the difference between vice and vise?

  • Vice is a moral fault or failing, a bad habit. The vice squad is the department in law enforcement that is charged with enforcing laws against gambling, pornography, prostitution, and illegal drug and alcohol use. I often see writers talk about being “squeezed in a vice grip.” But that makes me conjure up the image of a team of cops closing in on a criminal who has drugs hidden in his pocket. A vice is the opposite of virtue–conforming to a certain standard of morality or a commendable quality or trait.
  • A vise is a tool that holds or grips things.

If your only vice is in misusing the word vice, consider yourself virtuous. But know that such misuse might elicit some snickering among those who know better!

A Simple Hyphenation Rule That Is Well Advised

One hyphenation rule that you can almost take to the bank is this one: When you use a compound adjective (or phrasal adjective) before a noun, use a hyphen. When the phrasal adjective comes after the noun, it is usually open.

See how this plays out with various parts of speech:

  • Middle-class neighborhood, but the neighborhood is middle class (adjective + noun)
  • Open-ended question, but the question was open ended (adjective + participle)
  • Much-needed rain, but rain was much needed (adverb + participle or adjective)

But adverbs ending in ly + participle or adjective are almost always open whether they are used before or after a noun.

  • Overly protective mother
  • Highly skilled employees

Likewise, compounds with more, most, less, least, and very are usually open unless the meaning could be confused.

  • Most literate employees (referring to number of employees)
  • Most-literate employees (referring to literacy capacity)

Rules with participles:

  • Flag-waving citizen, but citizens waving flags (noun + participle)
  • Cutting-edge technology, but technology is cutting edge. (participle + noun)

Participle + up, out, and similar adverbs:

  • Fired-up employees, but employees were fired up.
  • Tuckered-out children, but children were tuckered out.

You can see there is a general rule here. When you place the compound after  a noun, you usually leave it in open construction. When it comes before the noun, it’s usually closed.

But always double check the word in your dictionary to make sure it’s not one of those exceptions to the rule, which is a common occurrence in the English language.

Are You Asking a Question or Not?

Wondering when to use a question mark? The answer is simple. When you expect an answer. Yet, I continually see writers getting “question mark happy” and sticking these bits of punctuation where they have no business being.

Direct questions—the kind journalists ask to get a story—demand an answer. They are often referred to as the 5 (or 6) W’s: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

What happened? Who was involved? When did it happen? Where? Why? How? Direct questions almost always begin with some variation of the 5 W’s. If one of these isn’t the first word in the sentence, it’s probably in there some place, like: “Well, just what are you doing in there?” or “Just who do you think you are?”

Sentences that begin with a being verb like are, is, were, and the like also indicate a direction question.

  • Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
  • Is anyone going with you?
  • May I come along?

All these questions demand an answer and a question mark.

And now to complicate things, just a little. We also pose indirect questions, but we don’t expect answers to these questions.

  • I wondered why he went in there.
  • I asked her what the problem was.

Sometimes writers prefer not to have question marks following rhetorical questions (a matter of choice):

  • Who could blame him.

No one really expects an answer to a question like that. And neither do these indirect questions require question marks.

Got it?