Limit Grammar Funny Business to Saturday Nights

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits is Weekend Update where Seth Meyers saturday-night-live-weekend-update-thursdayinterviews (or tries to, anyway) the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party. In these skits, Seth interviews an opinionated young woman who has trouble explaining herself.

Her grammar is not bad – she has been known to correct Seth, for that matter – but the rest of what comes out of her mouth makes absolutely no sense due to misplaced modifiers, lack of clear sentence subjects and hyperbole. I end up laughing myself to tears every time she shows up on Weekend Update!

One of her techniques for humor is malapropism, named after Mrs. Malaprop, a moralistic character from an 18th century English play. Mrs. Malaprop adds humor to the play by unintentionally using the wrong word, resulting in wickedly funny meanings to her statements. In a recent Weekend Update episode, “the Girl” had some real zinger malaprops; two of my favorite were:

  • “Don’t believe everything you read on TV.”
  • “For all intensive porpoises …”

I caution you, however, that there is nothing funny in business communication about using the incorrect word. Some words are easy to confuse with each other, so know the difference between the following commonly misused words and when to use each:

  • Who / Whom: Who is used as a subject and is usually followed by a verb, while whom is an object. A quick way to check whether to use whom is to put a preposition in front of it, such as “to” or “for.” Example: To whom should I send the report?
  • Among / Between: Both are prepositions, but among applies to more than two people or things while between applies to only two people or things. Example: The team divided the work among themselves. Jane assigned the database management responsibilities between Sam and Becky.
  • Affect / Effect: Affect means to act upon or influence. Effect means to bring about as a result or to accomplish something. Example: Weather delays will affect business operations; one potential effect may be dissatisfied customers.
  • Than / Then: Than shows comparison between two objects. Then is used to indicate time or a sequence of events.

Using the right word spares you a lot of embarrassment in your written and spoken communications. Don’t be like the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, leaving everyone wondering what you are trying to say!

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at hnelson@people-results.com.

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