The next few series of posts are not mine, but are credited to Reader’s Digest. Having trouble with the correct word in your writing? Then these may help:
You never mean: Could care less
You always mean: Couldn't care less
Why: You want to say you care so little already that you couldn't possibly care any less. When the Boston Celtics' Ray Allen said, "God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot," we know he meant exactly the opposite because 1) God has other things on his mind, and 2) God is a Knicks fan.
You might say: Mano a mano
You might mean: Man-to-man
Why: You don't speak Spanish by adding vowels to the end of English words, as a columnist describing father–teenage son relationships seemed to think when he wrote, "Don't expect long, mano a mano talks." Mano a mano (literally, "hand to hand") originated with bullfighting and usually refers to a knock-down, drag-out direct confrontation.
You might say: Less
You might mean: Fewer
Why: In general, use fewer when you're specifying a number of countable things ("200 words or fewer"); reserve less for a mass ("less than half"). So when you're composing a tweet, do it in 140
characters or fewer, not less.
You never mean: Hone in
You always mean: Home in
Why: Like homing pigeons, we can be single-minded about finding our way to a point: "Scientists are homing in on the causes of cancer." Hone means "to sharpen": "The rookie spent the last three seasons honing his skills in the minor leagues." But it's easy to mishear m's and n's, which is probably what happened to the Virginia senator who said, "We've got to hone in on cost containment." If you're unsure, say "zero in" instead.
You might say: Bring
You might mean: Take
Why: The choice depends on your point of view. Use bring when you want to show motion toward you ("Bring the dog treats over here, please"). Use take to show motion in the opposite direction ("I have to take Rufus to the vet"). The rule gets confusing when the movement has nothing to do with you. In those cases, you can use either verb, depending on the context: "The assistant brought the shot to the vet" (the vet's point of view); "the assistant took the shot to the doctor" (the assistant's).
You might say: Who
You might mean: Whom
Why: It all depends. Do you need a subject or an object? A subject (who) is the actor of the sentence: "Who left the roller skates on the sidewalk?" An object (whom) is the acted-upon: "Whom are you calling?" Parents, hit the Mute button when Dora the Explorer shouts, "Who do we ask for help when we don't know which way to go?"
Part 2 next week.