War on Words for August
Here’s an advance look at the War on Words column that will appear in the August Out & About Magazine:
The War on Words
By Bob Yearick
A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse
Close, But No Cigar …
Many Americans, including some professional journalists, have trouble with homophones – words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning, and often differ in spelling. (Homonyms, on the other hand, are words that share the same pronunciation and the same spelling but have different meanings – e.g.: tire, the noun, and tire, the verb. All homonyms are homophones because they sound the same, but not all homophones are homonyms. Homophones with different spellings are not homonyms.)
Three recent examples, with the correct words in parentheses:
- From the Wilmington News Journal: “…it is a bad thing to put undo (undue) focus on one part of the curriculum.”
- From a credit union’s message to members: “We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you and please bare (bear) with us.” (Courtesy of reader Robbie Simon.)
- And again from the NJ, in a story about wearing ties: “Our students do not dawn (don) this attire …”
How Long, Oh, Lord, How Long?
(In which we record the continued abuse of that most misused punctuation mark, the apostrophe.)
From a headline for a delawareonline video: “Onboard camera shows SpaceX rocket land on its’ feet.” Really? The apostrophe following the word? Very creative.
Literally of the Month
Yep, Mika Brizinski, that blonde bundle of hyperbole who co-hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” once again makes an appearance here. Here’s Mika, teasing a piece on Erik Compton, a heart transplant patient who tied for second in the U. S. Open Golf Tournament: “Stay tuned for a heart-warming story – literally.”
- From the usually pristine Sports Illustrated, in a story on O. J. Simpson: “He struck a apologetic tone.” In English, there are two indefinite articles – a and an. (The is the definite article.) SI thus seems to be joining the totally inexplicable and semi-literate trend to ignore poor old “an.” Here’s the rule: if the word following the article starts with a vowel sound, use an. If not, use a. The key word here is sound. The word doesn’t have to start with a vowel in order to require an. For instance, words with a silent “h” at the beginning require an: an hour, an honor, an honorable man.
- WDEL announcer on a story about the discovery of a fossil tusk: “It weighed nine ton.” This is an example of an age-old linguistic problem: using singulars where plurals are called for. It weighed nine tons! (Had he said it was “a nine-ton tusk,” he would’ve been correct.) This is similar to the sloppy practice of saying “I have six pair of gloves (pants, glasses, etc.).” It’s more than one, so it should be pairs.
We asked our contributing writers to submit their current language pet peeves. Here is Scott Pruden’s:
“It is what it is” has always struck me as the silliest, faux-Zen statement anyone could ever make. It’s just words strung together that don’t actually mean anything. I always get the feeling that it’s said just to fill conversational space and sound intellectual. In writing or formal speaking, it should never, ever appear unless it’s being mocked, criticized or satirized.
Look for more peeves from our writers in future issues. And if you have one that absolutely bugs you, send it in — we may use it.
Word of the Month
A verb, it means to play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money. So the guy strumming a guitar at Philly’s 30th Street Station, his guitar case open in front of him, is busking.
A secondary meaning in clothing and fashion: a strip of whalebone, wood, steel, etc., inserted into the front of a corset to stiffen it. Sometimes, the corset itself.
Seen a good (or bad) one lately? Send candidates to email@example.com.
Buy The War on Words paperback at outandaboutnow.com, at Ninth Street Books in Wilmington, the Hockessin Book Shelf, or on Amazon.