Tricky Little Words:
The Special Team of the Grammar Squad
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost
Sometimes the smallest words can be the trickiest ones. They’re often the ones that are misused, misplaced, misnumbered and mistaken. And despite their size, little words can make a big difference in the clarity of writing. Think of little words as the special teams of the grammar squad. Those special teams guys aren’t as flashy as a quarterback or a wide receiver, but sometimes a field goal decides the game, just as little words can make or break a sentence. So this month, we’ll tackle get, as well, too and that.
In response to a recent column about colloquialisms and casual language, one reader suggested that I address a growing get problem. Some writers use the verb to get to express all manner of actions. And when you think about it, get really can replace a whole lot of verbs. It’s an amazing little word. “Get” can mean obtaining or receiving something, being permitted to do something, understanding something, arriving at something, having something, and being obligated to do something, to name just a few. But the problem is that using get toexpress all those ideas isn’t always for the better.
One of the problems with get (or got) is the risk of its casualness in formal writing. In so many of its uses, get can have an overly chatty sound, almost like slang. “Got it” sounds significantly more casual than, “I understand,” doesn’t it? “Got it” would be inappropriate for formal writing. Similarly, using get to explain an obligation or an action can be overly colloquial for formal writing. Compare “he’s got to go” with “he has to go.” And compare “he got up” with “he stood up.” Of course, some of its uses don’t have the same casual impact. For example, “getting older” doesn’t sound more casual than “aging,” at least to my ear. So get isn’t always casual, but it often is.
Even if get doesn’t strike an overly casual tone, it can strip writing of its vigor. Part of vigorous writing is using strong, active verbs that can paint a picture for the reader. But get does just the opposite. It whitewashes the action. Consider the following examples of get and their possible replacements.
She got a parking ticket.
She received a parking ticket.
He got to go backstage to meet Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan invited him backstage.
We got to the concert hall late.
We arrived at the concert hall late.
I got lunch on Tuesday.
I ate/had lunch (or even lunched!) on Tuesday.
The replacements sound more formal, more precise, a little more interesting, and in some instances, more concise. The use of get in these original sentences isn’t wrong, per se. Get has a variety of meanings, so using it in a variety of ways isn’t in error. But even if not necessarily written in error, the writing is dull. So get the get out of writing when it hasn’t got a
And versus As Well As
Moving along to our next little word problem, do and and as well as mean the same thing? Some writers think so, using as well as and and interchangeably. Both terms suggest the same idea — the addition of something — but they are not synonyms.
The difference is kind of subtle. And simply joins two or more things. But as well as, when used correctly, emphasizes the words that precede as well as. Here’s an example: “The winter concert was fun for the teachers as well as the students.” The emphasis in that sentence is on the teachers. By using as well as, the writer says, “of course the concert was fun for the students, but surprisingly, it was fun for the teachers too.” If the writer simply wanted to express that everyone had fun, she should have used and.
Here’s another simple example: “I met with Bob as well as Lisa.” That emphasizes Bob, as though there’s something special about Bob being there. If Bob’s and Lisa’s presence were equally important and notable, the sentence should say, “I met with Bob and Lisa.”
So when listing things, whether two, three or 100 things, use and if all parts are equal. Use as well as if the point of the sentence is to emphasize or deemphasize some of the items on that list.
So far, the examples have only covered as well as when used between nouns. When as well as comes between two verbs, the same rule about emphasis applies. The verb that precedes the as well as gets the emphasis. But a special rule (or two) applies when as well as comes between two verbs. Get ready for this. When as well as separates two conjugated verbs, the second verb must be stated in its “-ing” form. That means “He skied at Bachelor as well as snowboarding” is correct, but “He skied at Bachelor as well as snowboarded” is incorrect. Wow, that correct sentence sounds strange. But it makes some sense if you flip the order of the sentence. Of course you’d write, “As well as snowboarding, he skied at Bachelor” instead of “As well as snowboarded, he skied at Bachelor.”
However, if a verb in the first half of the sentence is in the infinitive, the second verb can be in the infinitive, too. For example, in this sentence, where “to walk” is in the infinitive, one could write, “I have to walk the dog as well as bathe her.” (And by way of review, as we just discussed, this last sentence emphasizes the walking. If the writer simply wanted to express that she has two things to do, she should have written “I have to walk and bathe the dog.”)
The English language is wonderfully weird, isn’t it?
You too, as well!
Someone recently said this to me — “You too, as well!” — when I wished him a good day. Maybe he didn’t know which one to use, so he threw both in there. Too and as well are adverbs that both suggest “in addition.” They are almost always interchangeable. But here’s the difference: as well has to appear with a verb. If no verb appears in the phrase, which is somewhat rare, the writer would have to use too. Here is an example of where the two are interchangeable because there’s a verb in the phrase:
I am going to the park too.
I am going to the park as well.
By contrast, the common English phrase “me too” cannot be replaced with “me as well.” Here, as well cannot replace too because the verb is missing. But “I am as well” would be just as correct as “I am too” because the “to be” verb stuck itself back in there.
One more quick sidenote about too: it doesn’t always need to be preceded by a comma. That comma is optional. Adding a comma before too (or setting it off with commas if in the middle of a sentence) can create additional emphasis. But maybe the writer doesn’t want to add emphasis, and the sentence is perfectly fine without it. So contrary to what I learned in fifth grade, the comma is not strictly necessary.
Here a That, There a That, Everywhere a That That
Our final little word is that. The word that raises the type of disagreement and frustration that’s usually reserved for other types of four-letter words. Years ago, a student submitted a pretty terrific paper in my class, but throughout her paper I kept suggesting she add the word that all over the place. Here, there, everywhere — more thats! The student came to me later, totally confused and a little panicked, and lamented that a college professor had told her to find every that in her writing and delete them all. Well, that was lousy advice. That is a legitimate word! Give that its day in the sun!
Typically, a missing that causes more trouble in a sentence than an unnecessary one. Sometimes that does create clutter and it can be deleted. But on the other hand, sometimes that really clarifies a sentence. Relying on absolutes like “always delete it” or “always use it” doesn’t always work and is, in fact, almost always wrong. Using or omitting that often comes down to a judgment call about the clarity of a particular sentence.
For example, usually a writer doesn’t need that after an attributive verb like said or stated, but sometimes she does. In the sentence “She said that she was going home,” the that could be omitted without causing confusion. But in the sentence “The reporter said in the fall the trial would begin,” a that would help. Without that, does the reporter say the trial begins in the fall? Or did she say in the fall that the trial would begin at some other time? A well-placed that before or after in the fall would resolve the ambiguity.
Legal writers often omit that when stating a holding or finding. But sometimes the omission of that leads a reader down a very confusing path, even if just for a moment. For example, when I read the sentence, “The court held a shoe could be a weapon,” I picture a judge holding Nikes in her hand. On the other hand, a sentence that reads, “The court held that a shoe could be a weapon” won’t confuse a reader for even a second.
The trouble with that is it takes line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence editing to get it right. A writer has to consider how his audience will experience his writing and ask himself, “Without that, could my reader be confused, even momentarily?” If so, don’t delete that that.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches legal research and writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.
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© 2015 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost