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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Word choice errors undermine credibility in a heartbeat

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see confusing word pairs and word choice challenge.
 

 

I was having lunch with a friend when our server asked if we were finished. She didn’t say done; she said finished. As any educated person knows, a cake in the oven is done; a task or activity is completed or finished.

 

I was so impressed I left her a 451% tip.

 

Her precise word choice reminded me of a joke I once heard about academics at a linguistics conference. After a few glasses of wine, the linguists started showing off to each other, as academics are wont (not want) to do.

 

“Whoever can distinguish between the words complete and finish gets a free copy of Requiem for the American Dream,” a linguist named Noam declared.

 

Piqued (not peaked) by the challenge, the winning linguist said, “If you marry the right person, you’re complete. If you marry the wrong person, you’re finished.

 

Then after a pause he said, “And if the right person catches you with the wrong person, you are completely finished.

 

I was still laughing, tears streaming down my cheeks, when I boarded my plane for home.

 

“Please stop laughing,” the flight attendant (not stewardess) said. “We cannot get this flight underway until you’re done.”

 

I hadn’t meant to become disruptive over her word choice, but before I knew what was happening the cabin crew was dragging me down the aisle toward the emergency exit. When I awoke on the tarmac, the paramedics were loading me into an ambulance.

 

“Now just lay still,” an earnest young man named Oscar said. “You need to learn the importance of not making trouble.”

 

I demanded another ambulance with a better educated paramedic and was immediately provided one. At the hospital I was told to lay still.

 

Lie still,” I shouted, my arms and ears aching with pain (not pane), my wrists held with preventive (not preventative) straps. “To lie is to recline; to lay is to place,” I screamed.

 

“Now, now,” said a burly man with forearms the size of my thighs. “If you’ll just lie still, I’ll remove those straps and then I can shove this 12-inch needle into a vein with fewer tries.”

 

“You’re a wonderful nurse,” I said. “You said lie and fewer rather than lay and less. Where did you get your medical training?”

 

“Oh, I’m not a nurse,” he said with a big-toothed grin, “I’m an English major.”

 

“I knew it!” I said. “Poke away!”

 

As he wheeled me down the hall softly singing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside,” he paused to whisper, “Just between you and me, you have two broken arms.”

 

“Bless you, my friend,” I said, “for not saying ‘between you and myself’ or ‘between you and I.’”

 

Later a young woman made a deft swipe with her scalpel down the length of my forearm.

 

“Hey, shouldn’t you have administered some anesthetic first?” I asked.

 

“Oops,” she said. “They didn’t say anything about anesthetic when I earned my English degree. “Now just lie still,” she said. “We’ll soon be finished.”

 

“You’re an angel from heaven,” I murmured. “Slice away.”

 

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