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A Word, Please: Playing it safely

July 07, 2010

"If anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstruction."

That was Texas Rep. Joe Barton's apology for an apology — his ridiculously noncommittal backpedaling after telling BP chief Tony Hayward on June 17 how "ashamed" he was about our government's failure to be nicer about the worst oil spill in history. A plan to force BP to set up a $20-billion escrow fund to cover the damage was, Barton said, "a tragedy of the first proportion."

After every sober citizen who owns a television gasped at the utter perversity of Barton's logic, he tried to make things right with the above-quoted apology. And, in less than a day, Barton had given word parsers more fodder than Yogi Berra and Bill Clinton combined. Barton's grasp of the word "tragedy" alone could fuel a million blogs, not to mention his concept of "apology."

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But unlike the professional pundits who parse words to get to their meaning, I scrutinize even the less-meaningful stuff. And though I'm still reeling from the content of Barton's message, I've recovered enough to notice something about its form, specifically, his use of "misconstruction."

The word sounded odd to me, so I did some digging.

Many people don't know how to find help with matters like this or even how to choose between "drank" and "drunk," "swam" and "swum," and "stank" and "stunk." But the answer to all these questions is right at your fingertips. All you have to do is spend a few moments learning how to better use the dictionary.

Everyone knows that the dictionary is the place to turn if you need a correct spelling or a word definition. But there's a ton of other great information in there for anyone who knows how to access it.

For example, every irregular verb in the dictionary is accompanied by its "inflected forms." So if you look up "drink" you'll see next to it "drank, drunk, drinking." These entries follow a formula, usually explained clearly in the front of the dictionary: The first form is the simple past tense, the second is the past participle, and the third is the progressive or "ing" participle. You already know all there is to know about the simple past tense — "Joe drank" — and the progressive participle — "Joe is drinking." The past participle is almost as easy: Just remember that it's the one that goes with a form of "have": "Joe has drunk."

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