Good English sounds smart, and every one of us could stand to sound a bit smarter.
Just ask the president. A year ago he had trouble with I and me, saying things like "President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I...." But someone clarified this point of language for him: Whichever word you'd use if you were the only person involved (as in "President Bush graciously invited me") is the word you should use when someone else is, too. More tips:

"It's" So Easy
On paper many people are tripped up by it's versus its. The apostrophe in it's ("it is"), just like the one in we're ("we are") or I'm ("I am"), is standing in for a missing letter, in this case the i in is. That is its role. As opposed to: "That is it's role." Which would mean "That is it is role." Which in fact means nothing.

Beware the "Literal" Agenda
A literal-minded person lacks imagination. So does a "literal" expression: It means exactly what it says. So if you tell someone, "I'd kill to have your job—literally," watch out! You've just made a death threat.

That's Repetitive. And Redundant!
A sentence that starts with "The reason is" shouldn't continue with "because." "The reason" has already done all the work, leaving nothing for "because" to do. Other notorious wastes of words: "I thought to myself" (who else would you think to?), "advance reservations" (yep, that's when they're made), and "I am busy at this time" (but not so busy that you didn't have time for three useless words).

This story is part of O's Live Your Best Year Toolkit

Next: How to break the ice

Barbara Wallraff, author of the weekly Word Court column for King Features Syndicate.


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