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  • Writer's pictureEdnor Therriault

If You're Nonplussed, How Do You Feel?

Unphased or unfazed? Orientated or oriented? Amused or bemused? Or just plain confused?

For most writers not named Daniel Webster, it’s an ongoing struggle: proper word usage. I’m still scarred by a comment I got twenty years ago on a blog I was writing for a local news outlet. (Granted, it was a humor column that wasn’t lacking for self-deprecation, but I always took the mechanics of writing seriously.) Like most people, I spent my whole life writing “alright,” confident that it was correct, as it appeared everywhere. Rock songs used it: “The Kids Are Alright,” “I’m Alright,” “Feelin’ Alright.” Books had it right there in the title: “Everything Will Be Alright” by Willow Hadley, “The Sisters Are Alright” by Tamara Winfrey Harris, and “That’s Alright, Elvis” by Scotty Moore, to name just a few. The correct usage, the commenter pointed out, is two words: all right.

How could I have been so wrong about all right? You’d better believe I’ve not used “alright” since that well-meaning but crushing dressing-down. And I’m still learning. I’ve misused words that have been pointed out in my submitted work by editors and readers, and I’m always a little surprised but also grateful to be corrected on these things. It’s embarrassing to use a word incorrectly and to do it with a lot of conviction.

There do seem to be several words that are widely misused, and I want to talk about these today. I see them all the time, and the fussy language pearl-clutcher in me would hate to see them slip into the official lexicon simply because they are so widely misused. Such news would have me nonplussed. That’s a word that seems to be widely regarded as synonymous with unperturbed, not rattled, unaffected, unconcerned. Not so. There’s a TV commercial where an adolescent boy is sitting at the kitchen table with his girlfriend’s dad, waiting on the girl. He says to the dad, “Your daughter is an excellent kisser.” This is where any reasonable dad would be nonplussed. How does he answer something like that? Thanks? Glad you noticed? Keep up the good work? In real life, to be nonplussed is to begin stammering. You are the opposite of unfazed.

Cool word, unfazed. That was an easy one for me, because the correct word has a Z in it. I always feel like I’m standing up for unfazed a little bit, because it’s…different than the other words. That Z. Still, I see it misspelled all the time as “unphased.” That means, of course, not in phase. Not organized. Since such a cool homophone exists—the one with the cool Z—there’s always a better word that will mean the same thing but without the confusing baggage.

To say all this stumbling over proper word use has me affected would be accurate. Affected, not effected. This is a big one. “Effect” is usually used as a noun, as in “I hope this blog’s carping will have a positive effect on your writing.” It can be used as a verb, typically in the phrase, “to effect change.” “Affect” is almost always used as a verb, such as, “I hope Friday’s snowstorm doesn’t affect the deadline on the history essay that’s due Monday.” That sarcastic sentence can also be built using “effect,” without the sarcasm. “I hope this snowstorm has a negative effect on the deadline of this history essay.”

Let me ask you this. Are you looking at a website right now? Yes, it’s a site. On the Web. It’s not a websight. Maybe that can be a useful tip to help clear up the rampant swapping of site and sight. As a history buff and researcher, I’m annoyed at the number of times I’ve been encouraged to check out some “historical sight.” Yes, I suppose the writer could really mean a historically significant object I could look at, but it’s generally misused to mean “location.” The old Montana State Prison was the site of a 1959 riot that was ended by a National Guard cannon blast into the cell block tower. The crater left in the brick wall is one of the sights you can see on the tour.

An old college friend gave me the business a while ago when I wrote that I had been poring over a document for hours. He was sure it should be “pour.” He’s an intelligent guy. A lot of people use pour when they mean pore, but it’s incorrect. But if I were to say I poured over a document, it would be to indicate that I’m literally streaming liquid onto the document, say, a history essay that was due Monday. I would be raining down fluid on that poorly written screed in an attempt to gain sympathy from my professor and buy another week.

Rain almost always means rain. But reign and rein, well, that’s another story. Rein is commonly used to indicate restraint or control, as in, “the Governor announced today that he would rein in taxes, but only for those who make four million dollars a year or more.” You use the reins to rein in a horse. Reign with a G, that’s the one where an individual rules over a kingdom of his subjects, as opposed to a public servant who is elected to office to serve the best interests of the citizenry.

Here's one that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. Breathe vs. breath. They’re not even pronounced the same, and pretty much everyone knows that you breathe—breath is what comes in and out of your body. Why am I even bringing it up? One of the proudest moments of my life was when I won the fifth-grade spelling bee in Santa Ana, California. I still have the trophy. Do I remember what word I spelled to capture the title? Hell no, I remember the one I misspelled to lose the school-wide spelling bee. My word was “breath,” and for some reason I added the E at the end. I knew the difference. To this day I can’t figure out why I blew it. But it cut me, man. It cut me deep.

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