Good old New Yorker. They pretty much always get their language right, and they’re famous for it. Here’s a usage that I think is fading away, even though I like it. It appeals to the detail-lover in me. It’s the punctuation mark called, in English, the dieresis.
Often when two vowels occur together, we either pronounce only one of them (when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking) such as the word “boat.” Sometimes they are combined to form a diphthong, such as height. We’re so used to it we often don’t hear it. I’ll help you hear it. The word “hi” is pronounced the same as the karate term, “hai!” Whatever happens, the vowels usually combine into one syllable.
But sometimes, especially with prefixes, you end up with two vowels together, but each in its own syllable, and that’s where the dieresis comes in. If you want the second vowel to be in its own syllable the correct thing to do is use a dieresis. So here’s our example:
The reëlection of Barack Obama was a boon for the prepping industry.
Lots of folks, who don’t know how to create a dieresis, use a hyphen, re-elect. That’s okay, I guess, but why not be high class and use a dieresis? I googled “ascii for dieresis” to save you looking them up:
vowels with diaresis
ä alt + 132
ë alt + 137
ï alt + 139
ö alt + 148
ü alt + 129
Hold down the Alt key and type the numbers on the numeric keypad. Reïgnite your inner grammarian!
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Darren Bell posts the occasional Candorville strip of the main character, Lemont, (who is a writer) correcting someone’s grammar. I have long held the opinion about the difference between “continual” and “continuous” expressed in this comic. It’s nice to see my opinion confirmed.
Yes, circumlocution is an actual word. It means “a phrase when you can’t think of (or don’t want to use) a word that means the same thing.” You use a circumlocution when you say “beat around the bush” instead of “evasive.”
“Ultimate” normally means “cannot be exceeded,” but it also means “last,” and herein lies the following joke in Pros and Cons:
“Penultimate” means “next to last.” Did you know there’s a word for “the one before next to last”? It’s “antepenultimate.”
You probably won’t need to use “antepenultimate” often, but there you have it if you ever want to avoid the circumlocution.
PS: The rules for accenting verbs in Classical Greek go only as far as antepenultimate, so I had forgotten about this word, a good example of prefixes gone wild, preantepenultimate (fourth from the last), which I was reminded of recently in A word a Day.
Apostrophes’ main use is for contractions, I think. More on that later.
Apostrophes are also used for quotes inside quotes; in fact, the rule is you alternate single and double quotes as you nest them.
The student told me, “Our teacher said ‘Don’t use the fire escape until I say “GO!”.’.”
Technically you don’t need spaces between the marks when they fall together, but I would have used them because I want you to be able to see clearly what I’m doing. But I lucked out because I need a period for each sentence.
Another use for apostrophes is to show possession. Technically that is also a contraction; the possessive used to be “-es,” and we took out the “e” and replaced it with an apostrophe.
Contractions. Perhaps the most common contraction is n’t for not, but you can use it to shorten verb forms, such as the present perfect: “could’ve” instead of “could have.” You can shorten the future, too: “we’ll” instead of “we will.”
Then sometimes jargon shortens words, and the correct way to show the shortening is with apostrophes, hence this Frazz:
And I ran into this verb-form shortening with an uncommon, but perfectly correct contraction, brothers’ve:
Here are two rules:
In formal writing, avoid most contractions. Don’t use them unless they improve the writing.
Nowadays, most of the time, the –n’t contraction is okay to use.
Homonyms are words that are pronounced the same, but have different meanings. From days of yore, the danger with homonyms is that your spell checker won’t warn you about them; you have to know what you’re writing about. (You saw the three homonyms in that last sentence, didn’t you?)
I suppose the real danger is that you appear to be a doofus if you use the wrong word. Technically, if they are spelled differently but pronounced the same, they’re homophones. Here are a few I have seen in the wild:
- he—third person singular masculine pronoun
hee—a type of laugh, often with tee or another hee
- peek—to look at something surreptitiously
peak—the top of a mountain
- they’re, their, there—I don’t need to define these, do I?
discreet—showing good sense
True homonyms are both spelled and pronounced the same, but they are different words, not just different meanings of the same word, though they’re often treated that way.
- bark—what a dog says, from Old English word for break. When your drill sergeant barks an order, it’s this word.
bark—outside of a tree, from Old Norse for tree skin. When you bark your shin, it’s the verb form of this word.
- fold—where you put sheep, from Old English falaed
fold—what you’re supposed to do to a shirt, map, or egg whites, also from Old English, folden
- Google “homonym” for more examples than you’ll ever need.
Then we have the occasional words that are spelled alike but pronounced differently and have different meanings. These are homographs. Well, also called heteronyms, depending on whether you care about the spelling or the pronunciation. In English you can change a lot of words from noun to verb by changing the accent.
- contest—a competition
contest—to dispute an outcome
- row—in a nice line
row—(pronounced raow)—a disorderly fight
- use—(pronounced uze) to employ something such as a tool
use—(pronounced usse) why you employ something
- used—(pronounced yusst) an auxiliary verb; “we used to go camping”
used—(pronounced uzed) past tense of use; “we used a tent whenever we went”
Do you have any favorites that people get wrong? Feel free to share in the comments.
PS—I ran into this Buckles after I wrote this post, but since it has one of today’s words in it…