Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lose vs loose usage

“Use proper English, you’re regarded as a freak...”

Character of Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady

At the risk of “getting my freak on” (!) I’d like to help with a language problem that is cropping up with ever-increasing frequency: the difference between “lose” and “loose”. As evidenced by the common and multitudinous misuse of these words in all their forms, this simple issue is evidently quite a poser for most people, so I’m here to help.

Perhaps the problem stems from how close the words are in spelling and sound. A zee sound versus an ess, but both with a long double o, for an oooo sound. One tiny extra o causes so much trouble.

With help from our language friend, the dictionary:

Lose has a relation to failing: fail to retain something, or failing to have, get, catch, win

Loose has a relation to free and unbound, something not strict, taut, exact, or precise. It also means “Lax, as the bowels” - that alone should make the difference clear. It also means "sexually promiscuous” or to “let fly”. (See why the dictionary can be fun?)

In the spirit of humorist Dave Barry’s “Ask Mr. Language Person”, here’s a good example:
After losing our loose bowels, our loose louses loosed loose arrows at the lost losers on the loose.

Now THAT’S proper English. Hope that clears it up.

But seriously, the real difference is important. Yes, the English language is difficult to learn and use properly, and maddeningly inconsistent in spelling. When William Shakespeare, the foremost writer in the language, reportedly spells his name six different ways, you know there’s a problem. Yet some rules are simple. But with the proliferation of email, texting and blogging, there are billions of words being transmitted without the benefit of any editing, and the mistake of using lose for loose and vice-versa is all too common.

Writers know it’s important to communicate properly, not sloppily. We study proper usage and train ourselves to always do gooder (whoops, better). “Aw, don’t be such a nitpicker,” you might say. Well, as Mark Twain quipped, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

There may be a time when using words improperly could be costly- suppose a person was interviewing and misused a common word or phrase, and was to lose entry into a good school or to lose an opportunity for a good job. Just saying...

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