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A Word, Please

Sometimes language rules stump the experts, too.

October 06, 2010|By June Casagrande

People think that, because I edit professional writers' work, I have all the answers to the little language problems that plague regular folk. And, really, who am I to correct them? Perhaps some people need to believe that linguistic perfection is possible and syntactical superheroes exist. Admitting my own weaknesses — that would be downright selfish. So I let 'em think I'm that good.

But just between you, me and the bird whose cage this column will soon be lining, I still have a lot to learn. Every day, I have to look things up — words and usage matters and style rules that continue to elude me even after years of trying to pass myself off as an expert. Almost as often, I fail to catch the very errors I'm trying to root out.

Here are some of the words that, in recent months, have threatened to expose my weaknesses.

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Predominately. I was proud of myself when I spotted this word in an article I was editing. Usually, I need a computer spellchecker to catch such subtle spelling issues. But this time, all by myself, I caught that "predominantly" was misspelled.

Except it wasn't. According to "Webster's New World College Dictionary," "predominately" is an adverb rooted in the verb predominate. That makes it a different word from "predominantly," which is an adverb form of the adjective predominant. But though the two adverbs are born of different word classes, they're still pretty much the same thing.

To predominate means "to have ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence" or "to be dominant in amount, number, etc., to prevail." Predominant, the adjective, means "having ascendancy, authority, or dominating influence over others" or "most frequent, noticeable, etc.; prevailing." But while "predominately" is sanctioned, it's still weird. The adverbs most familiar to us are the ones born of adjectives, not verbs. Happily from happy, quickly from quick, and so on. So I still prefer "predominantly."

Winded. Here's a sentence that almost made a monkey out of me: Guests sipped signature cocktails and nibbled hors d'oeuvres into the wee hours until the evening winded down and they went home with gift baskets teeming with treats from local merchants.

That "winded" that got past me twice and almost eluded me a third time during my final proofread. In the dictionary the publication follows, the preferred past tense of "to wind" is "wound." "Winded" is usually an adjective meaning out of breath.

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