Tag Archive - usage tips

I Would if I Could . . .

Some people might consider the distinction between could and would to be only a matter of degree of politeness (would being more polite than could). But could encompasses additional meanings and connotations.

Could is the past tense of can (to be able to do, make, or accomplish), but it also refers to an ability or possibility in the past.

  • When I was younger, I could run a mile without getting winded.
  • Before cell phones, you could actually engage family members in face-to-face conversation.

Could also implies possibility but in a slightly different sense than can. The statement, “We can hold five adults in our car” shows capacity. There is room for five. Using could instead gives it a slightly different meaning. It’s likely to be true or happen. It’s possible that five people will need a ride.

Could is also used to refer to something that you wish to have or do but that is not possible. (If I could win the lottery, we’d be out of debt!) Could have describes something that was possible but didn’t happen. (We could have won the lottery if we had bought a ticket.) Continue Reading…

Are You Getting the Just Deserts You Deserve?

Sometimes we think bad people should get what they deserve, but we shouldn’t liken that punishment to eating day-old pastries.

Yes, lots of people use the phrase “getting his just deserts,” but they are thinking of desserts—sweet treats.

The word desert pronounced with the accent on the second syllable (de-ZERT), brings to mind the verb that means to leave, abandon, or withdraw. But as a noun, that word means “that which one deserves.” Desert, in that sense, is now archaic and rarely used outside this phrase.

In a convoluted way, writing “he got his just desserts” (as in sweets) makes some sense. I picture doling out some awful-tasting moldy cake to a person I feel deserves such a dessert. Continue Reading…

Can You Distinguish What’s Distinct?

So many words in the English language sound similar, so we often think they mean the same thing. Such is the case with the words distinct and distinctive. Seems as if they should be interchangeable, right?

Distinct means “well defined, discernibly separate:

  • She has distinct speech—you can’t miss her.

Distinctive means “serving to distinguish, set off by appearance:

  • His distinctive pink bowtie made him stand out in the crowd.

Distinct speech is well pronounced, but distinctive speech has characteristics that may help you guess where a person is from.

Sometimes writers confuse distinctive with distinguished, such as in “he spoke to a distinctive group of authors.” Distinguished means “notable” or “famous.”

  • The man with his distinctive accent and distinct manner of speaking appeared quite distinguished.

There’s a distinct possibility you might forget this lesson, but I hope it was distinctive enough for you to take it to heart.

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