Beware of those homophones!

rogersgeorge on July 8th, 2010

I just read a review of a new BMW motorcycle, to be revealed this fall. The article was articulate and clear, and the writer was obviously familiar with motorcycles. But he gave us a good lesson on homophones by illustrating how not to use two of them. (He also got “comprise” wrong every time he used that word, but that’s another lesson.)

A homophone is a word that sounds exactly like another word, but is spelled differently and has a different meaning. Such as blue, the color, and blew, past tense of blow. Another famous example is there, their, and they’re. Puhleeze—get those right! Because the spelling is different, a wrong homonym is easy to spot, so it’s a really good way to betray your lack of grasp of English.

Here’s one from the article:

“So, without further adieu…”

He meant “without further ado.”  Adieu means farewell, and ado means, well, commotion. “Adieu” is even harder to spell than “ado.” And he had the title of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to guide him. I’m not sure why he went to all that work just to get it wrong.

Here’s the other:

“We have to make due for the moment with concept and design sketches seen here…” (BMW wouldn’t let him photograph the motorcycle.)

It’s “make do.” Both due and do have many meanings, but the correct word here is “do.”

I will say that it is an impressive motorcycle.

Bonus: If the words are spelled the same but have different origins, they are homographs (row a boat, lined up in a row), and if they are spelled the same but pronounced differently, they are heteronyms. (—a tear in some fabric, and a tear running down your cheek). Yes, you can have overlap. Depends on which dictionary you use, and who your English teacher was.

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Subtle redundancy—the hard part of writing 5

rogersgeorge on July 3rd, 2010

Here’s part of the caption under a photo on the front page of a local newspaper whose name shall remain unmentioned, but you’ll figure it out if you live near me. The context is a photo of a whale carcass.

“…to allow scientists to examine the creature for clues of how it may have died.”

Can you tell what’s wrong with this sentence?

“Clues” implies indefiniteness, and so does “may” (which is incorrect for two other reasons which I’ll get to in a moment). So we have a redundancy—an unnecessary repetition.

Now to decide which to remove, the “clues” or the “may.”

For one thing, they called it a carcass in the headline, and said “dead animal” elsewhere in the caption. The animal is clearly dead—no “may have died” here. Furthermore, they might not figure out why the animal died, so “clues” is appropriate.

So let’s go with “…to allow marine biologists to look for clues to how the creature died.”

Two more goodies from this sentence:

  • First, note the change to a more specific term than “scientists.” Better writing.
  • Second, use “might” to express doubt, not “may.” Save “may” for permission.

You may now go forth and write better.

The third lesson in yesterday’s post

rogersgeorge on July 2nd, 2010

Go read the post below, if you haven’t already.

The post mentions two errors to watch out for and avoid: Be careful to get your prepositions right, and use vivid words, not blah ones.

I hinted at a third lesson. (I said I had looked at a sentence after not seeing it for a couple days.)

PROOFREAD!!!

If I had set the original message aside and looked at it after a couple days (enough time to forget what I had written), I would have noticed the ambiguity and fixed it. Proofreading right after you write something is a good habit—it helps you fix the typos and obvious errors. But if you can put some time between your writing and your final check before you hit Send, you’ll notice and fix the subtle errors.

Your readers will thank you for it.

Prepositions are tricky words in any language (that has them), and English is certainly a member of this club. Getting the prepositions right all the time is hard, even for a (ahem careless) native speaker. I quote my goof:

“Thought you’d like to know I quoted something on your site today.”

(Give me poetic license for leaving off the first person singular subject, okay?)

Everything is grammatical, but what is on that site? My first reading of the sentence after not looking at it for several days told me I claimed to have visited that person’s site and written something there. But I hadn’t. I did the writing on my site (The post on parallelism, below, to be exact.) I had quoted something from his site on my site. The sentence would have been better if I had included both prepositional phrases:

“I thought you’d like to know that I quoted something from your site on my site today.” Still not super good, but better.

The most natural reading of that original sentence is to have the “on your site” modify the verb “quoted,” and herein lies another lesson. Normally a prepositional phrase appears right after the word it modifies. Why do we want to jump over “something” to make the preposition modify the verb?  Because “something” is so bland. It could be Mark Twain, Socrates, an ephemeris, the newspaper, anything. In fact, the word is so general, you wonder what’s the point of the sentence saying that I went to his site and quoted something. Rah rah, big deal.

So let’s get rid of that pointless word and replace it with something oops a word more vivid: Mistake. Or solecism (mistake in grammar). Or goof. Now we have:

“I thought you’d like to know that I quoted a mistake on your site today.”

I didn’t say anything about me or where I wrote the quote, but now the reaction is, “What? A mistake on my site? And he quoted it? Who is this guy? An antivaxer? (inside joke) A reporter? My old English teacher?

Now it’s clear, and it has some punch. I can tell who I am and where I wrote in another sentence, which I did.

One last thing—I didn’t say what the mistake was. That was on purpose. A rule regarding certain types of writing is to avoid repeating yourself, and I had already described the mistake here on my site, so I pointed him to my article. I saved some repetition, and he could decide whether to go find out what the mistake was—I wasn’t forcing him to read my opinion.

By the way—he visited here and fixed the error. Mission accomplished, even though I made a mistake.