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by Alan Weiss | March 31, 2009


While the points discussed below might seem like arcane bits of grammar only in the purview of ancient English teachers, they will actually distinguish the educated and the literate from the less so - no small advantage among sophisticated buyers and business people who are most comfortable developing relationships with people they believe to be their peers.

This might sound like a peripheral point to growing a practice or impressing a client or superior, but I've found it to be quite critical to securing publicity, gaining credibility with high-powered clients, and creating a professional image.

First, be aware that "verbal" pertains to the use of language, not simply spoken words. The opposite of written is not "verbal" but "oral." Verbal skills are those affecting both the written and the spoken word.

Here are some of the common errors and mangling that demonstrate someone does not have command of the language (those of you who are also professional speakers should pay particular heed).

  1. "Between" is a preposition requiring the objective case, so "between you and me" or "between him and her" is proper, and "between you and I" and "between he and she" is always stupifyingly incorrect, no matter how many television news readers get it wrong.

  2. Only the speaker can imply and the listener infer, not the other way around (although some new dictionaries have gone with the illiterate crowd on this one). Why ruin two elegant words that have their own precise meanings?

  3. When referring to physical condition, "prone" means to lie on one's stomach, "supine" on one's back (think "spine"). The sentence "He was prone on his back" gives me a pain in the neck.

  4. To "lay" means to place or to put something down. To "lie" means to recline. "She laid down her book before lying down on the couch."


  5. Despite the logic of the sentence, in American style commas and periods go inside of all quotation marks, and colons and semi-colons go outside of them. I find these errors on promotional materials and web sites all the time.

  6. Now the killer: "Forte" is French for "strong" or "strength" when pronounced "fort." But "forte" is Italian for loud (a musical direction) when pronounced "fortay." This is almost always used in error, as in: "Her forte (fortay) is consulting," which would mean that her loudness is consulting. Stand against the crowds even if it sounds awkward: Our forte (fort) should be our verbal skills.

  7. Only a fundamental belief or theory is spelled "principle"; all other uses are spelled "principal." Remaining in one spot is "stationary," but writing requires "stationery." I can "compliment" you on your "complement" (addition) to our dinner.

  8. "Noisome" does not mean "noisy" but "noxious." The guests might have been loud at dinner, but they probably weren't toxic.

  9. When you use "curly quotes" and similar apostrophes in e-mail, they will appear as strange alien symbols on many recipients' systems. Don't prepare e-mail and electronic newsletters within word processing software; prepare them within the e-mail software itself.

  10. And now for "fortuitous," which primarily means "occurring by chance." A "fortuitous accident" is redundant, like "accidental serendipity." "Fortunate" and "lucky" describe happy accidents; "fortuitous" does not.


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