Good grammar can be deceptively simple

February 26, 2015

By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for spring. It seems a long way off, and I’m becoming increasingly impatient. My covered-for-the-winter 1950s lime-green metal porch glider is calling my name. It has springs and cushions that make it so comfortable, its rhythmic rocking can lull you to sleep faster than you can say, “summer breeze.”

The one thing I hate about spring is the little voice in my head, whose message was planted there by my mother when I was a child, saying, “Time to do the spring cleaning!” Every spring, she assembled her six minions and delegated jobs to us. We had to dust baseboards, wash coats, put mothballs in the closets, dust light fixtures, take curtains down and wash them, and wash windows.

Does anyone do that these days? I know I don’t have time or an army of eager helpers, so I deep-clean one area at a time when I notice a closet door that won’t shut or a gray, powdery coating on my white blinds. I never get to experience a completely dust-free, lemon-scented, fresh-as-a-baby-just-out-of-a-bath house.

If you can’t spare the time to deep-clean your house, don’t despair. There are plenty of other ways to feel fresh and new. Spring is as good a time as any to improve your vocabulary and clean up your grammar.

We all tend to pick up the bad habits of those around us—especially language habits. It’s a good idea to evaluate ourselves now and then to see whether we have adopted any bad grammar habits that ought to be vacuumed out of our brains. I have a few suggestions.

Lately, I’ve noticed that more people are using the wrong modifier when they intend to add extra emphasis to their point. Have you ever said something like, “This year, I will make a concerted effort to improve my golf game”? Who, exactly, are you in concert with, a little birdie? A concerted effort can’t be achieved alone—it involves a collaboration. It’s time to stop pretending that a concerted effort means a strong effort. It doesn’t.

Maybe you’ve said, “Spring is literally around the corner”? If so, you are using “literally” incorrectly, unless there are two walls outside that meet at a corner, and when you poke your head around that corner, you can see spring hiding out, waiting to arrive. If you leave out the word “literally,” then you have a figurative statement, which is good because you are actually speaking figuratively about spring. “Literally” should not be used to emphasize that you are not making this up, when in fact, you are.

Have you ever said something was “deceptively simple—it should be attempted only by an expert”? I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you’ve assigned “deceptively” the opposite of its actual meaning. If something is deceptively simple, it is easier than it seems, not more difficult.

For example, you could warn someone who is driving on ice, “That hill is deceptively steep, so take another route,” because the hill might not seem as steep as it really is. Maybe people assume that because “deceptive” involves secrecy and hiding the truth, it reverses the meaning of the word it modifies. Actually, it magnifies the word’s meaning. Think of the hill as a sneaky bully deceiving you as to its true steepness so that you will slide off into a ditch, if that helps.

If you plan to singlehandedly make a concerted effort to do some deceptively light spring cleaning until your house literally shines like the sun, then you have some work to do, and it’s all in your head. Put those scrub brushes down, go buy yourself a grammar reference guide, plop yourself down on a comfy porch glider and start memorizing. Everyone around you will be glad you did. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2015


Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, MO, an editor by trade, who writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where this column first appeared. She is a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to

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