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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

English class

Beware the Lurking Homonym

Yesterday I offered you some "big" words.  Today, I have some "little" ones. Do you remember homonyms?  Those pesky little words that sound exactly alike by are spelled in several different ways and had several different meanings?  In grade school I had a teacher who loved them. During quite periods, she taught us to play a game in which we made up sentences containing homonyms but substituted the word "teakettle" for the words themselves. The challenge was for the other students to identify the missing homonym.  The sentences sounded like this: "I teakettle would like teakettle eat teakettle  pieces of cake."

The game was just childish silliness, but it's not funny when a writer gets wrapped up in her story and types one homonym for another without noticing. Maybe you are writing a sympathetic description of an admirable politician  who suffered from great depravation -- or did you really mean to type deprivation? There's not a spell checker in the world who will catch an error like that. And there's no sure way to avoid making the occasional goof. About all you can do is take time to think about the words that cause you trouble.  Here's a baker's dozen that may trip you up when you are busily touch-typing.

• Cite (to summon, to quote, to refer to), Site (place, situation), Sight (view)
• Council (administrative or advisory group), Counsel (to advise, advice)
• Desert (waterless region, to abandon), Dessert (last course of a meal)
• Dew (moisture), Do (perform), Due (owed)
• Gait (manner of walking, Gate (door)
• Grate (iron frame), Great (large, magnificent)
• Haul (pull, carry, transport), Hall (passageway, large room)
• Here (in this place), Hear (to perceive sound, to sit in judgment)
• Idol (image, object of adoration), Idle (not busy), Idyl (poem)
• Leak (hole, to drain out of), Leek (vegetable)
• Made (created), Maid (domestic servant, unmarried woman)
• Meat (animal flesh food), Meet (a gathering, to encounter, to convene)
• Morning (before noon), Mourning (grieving, to grieve)

16 Words We Don't Need (No, not that kind!)


I've been in editing mode for several days now, so I decided it was time for readers to join me. In The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese,  chapters 12 through 14 cover the kinds of silly grammatical errors we all make when writing.

Here’s a list of little words you don’t need. Try reading each sentence without that extra word. Don’t they all sound better?

•  SO (as in “I was so glad to see him.”) There’s an exception here: “so” is acceptable only when it is followed by a “that”—as in “She was SO short THAT she only saw people from the waist down.”
•  VERY (as in “I was very, very tired.”)
•  THAT (as in (“I thought that I should leave.” )
•  ALTHOUGH (“Although, I’m not sure I should.””)
•  JUST (“I was just beginning to get sleepy.”)
•  YET (“She hasn’t arrived yet.”)
•  RATHER (“It seemed rather rude.”)
•  EVEN (“Even the other guests were bored.”)
•  SORT OF (“The milk was sort of soured.”)
•  IN SPITE OF (“I was irritated in spite of myself.”)
•  PERHAPS (“I could, perhaps, take a nap.”)
•  QUITE (“I was quite tempted to do it.”)
•  FOR A MOMENT (“I hesitated for a moment.”)
•  THEN (“Then I walked out.”)
•  SUDDENLY (“Suddenly I stopped.”)
•  ALMOST (“The roast beef was almost burned.”)
 
I copied the list from another blogger several years ago, and I’ve used it ever since. Once your manuscript is complete, go to the “find and replace” function in your word processor, and scan the whole manuscript for each word. That means you’ll go through the whole manuscript about eighteen times, but you’ll be surprised at how many other errors you’ll spot along the way.

Every time you find one of the words on the list, ask yourself if the meaning of the sentence changes when you take the word out. If it doesn’t, drop it.

Bar Jokes for English Majors and Book Editors

Yesterday, I finally hired an editor for my upcoming novel. Then I worried about sending her the first chapters without doing a quick edit myself to catch the really dumb mistakes. After a couple of hours of editing this morning, I took a break, but I couldn't get away from grammar and punctuation.  On Facebook I found people playing a new game: creating bar jokes involving grammar and punctuation. So here, for your enjoyment -- or befuzzlement -- are some of the best ones I discovered.

  1. A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
  2. A question mark walks into a bar?
  3. Two "quotation marks" walk into a bar.
  4. The bar was walked into by a passive verb.
  5. Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They drink. They leave.
  6. A spell checker want into a bar and preceeded to get waisted.
  7. A worn out simile went into a bar, had a shot and a Red Bull chaser, and then ran like a bat out of hell.
  8. A subordinating conjunction walked into a bar because it was thirsty.
  9. A colon walks into a bar for one reason: to drink.
  10. A split infinitive decides to boldly walk into a bar.
  11. Always a verb in a bar.
  12. An adverb walks into a bar thirstily.
  13. A run on sentence walks into a bar and sits and drinks and leaves and comes back again and has too much to drink and stumbles out of the bar and returns again unable to stop its on going drinking habit which it learned to do the first time it went into the bar to sit down and drink and leave if only for a moment.
  14. Being well fried, the Dangling Modifiers enjoyed the pork chops.
  15. An ellipsis walks into a bar…
  16. A palindrome walks up to a girl in a bar and says, "Madam, I'm Adam."
  17. An unnecessary Oxford comma walks into a bar, drinks, and leaves.
  18. A conjunction joined two phrases at a bar.

How many of them did you understand? That's why every writer needs an editor!

Spelling — Cna Ouy Rdea Htis?

I should be taking off from the Memphis airport, headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, about now.  Instead, I'm sitting by the phone, waiting for a medical report that could drastically change every plan I've made for the rest of the year. (No, I'm not the patient; it's a close family member, and not bloggable beyond that.) To control the panic and nervous energy, I'm working on my proposed book about self-publishing. So, as I fill in the gaps in the manuscript, you'll be seeing some new writing articles here.  This is the first one, which goes into the chapter on editing.

Studies have demonstrated that most people look at the line above and have no trouble reading it as “Can you read this.” Experts think that our minds are conditioned to switch the letters around until they form a recognizable word. That may be so, but fussy folks (like English teachers and other literary types) expect a writer to be able to spell.  Nothing will get your manuscript tossed into the trash can more quickly than having misspelled words — especially if one of then happens to be the name of the agent or publisher you are trying to woo.  I really worry about today’s teenagers who have grown up knowing how 2 txt w/ as few ltrs as psbl.  We may have raised a whole generation of unemployable illiterates.

Grammar books will offer all sorts of rules, some of which I know you've heard.

   •   "I before E except after C."  This one works sometimes, but it doesn't apply if the word is pronounced with an AY, (neighbor, vein)  and there are other inexplicable exceptions (either, foreign).

   •   "To add an ending to a word that ends with a silent E, drop the E before adding an ending that begins with a vowel, (curve becomes curving), and keep the E if the ending begins with a consonant (true becomes truly)." But of course there are exceptions, such as mileage and judgment.

   •   "When you add an ending to a word that ends with Y, change the Y to I and then add the ending (worry becomes worries).  But the rule does not apply to  adding -ING (worrying) or when the Y is preceded by a vowel (saying).

   •   Do you want to talk about doubling final consonants? I don't even want to try this one. The answer is you do and you don't, depending on the number of syllables in the word and the placement of the accent. Don't ask.  Look it up.


Now, it would be nice if I could offer you some easy rules, comparable to the comma rule, to get you past this problem.  Surely phonics instructors and Sesame Street taught us how to pronounce our letters. But the English language, being terribly English at times, does not lend itself to rules. Do you doubt that? Then think of these words and say them out loud:  although, through, cough, rough, drought, dough, ought.  Tell me now, how do you pronounce the following letter combination: OUGH ?

Here are the only rules I think you can trust.

   •   Use a spell-checker constantly, but don’t rely on it to catch every spelling error.  It won’t catch the difference between too, to, and two, for example, or any other pair of words that sound alike.

   •   Buy a good (new!) dictionary and check it whenever you are in doubt. Remember that the meanings of words change over time, old words become obsolete, and new ideas and new technologies spawn whole new vocabularies.

   •   Don’t try to sound sophisticated by using English spelling for words like centre or colour. They just make you sound like you made a wrong turn somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. (But if your publishing company happens to be located in England, all bets are off.)

It's Not Easy Being an English Teacher

I started teaching high school English for the first time when I was barely 21, but the job aged me rapidly.  Not that it was hard -- the kids were great.  But other people, not so great.  I was shocked the first few times I received a strange reaction when my husband introduced me to his friends and colleagues.  The conversations would go something like this:
"Hello, I understand you're Lt. Schriber's wife."
"Yes, hi, I'm Carolyn" (big smile, hand extended, eager to please).
"How are you settling in?"
"Just fine, thanks, although we may face some minor bumps when I start work next week." (a little shrug)
"Oh, you work?  What do you do?"
"I'm going to be teaching English at (local) High School." (proud and excited to have found a job)
"OH." (new person makes rapid escape, leaving me standing there feeling abandoned.)

The "OH" was often followed by one of several responses:
1. Excuse me, I'm needed in the kitchen.
2. I always hated English.
3. You don't look  old enough to be an English teacher.  I thought they were all elderly ladies with warts on their chins."
4. Oh, dear, now I'll be afraid to talk to you.
5. You're going to correct my grammar, aren't you?

You get the idea.  People shied away from me if they were self-conscious about a lack of education, or they shunned me if they had had a bad school experience.  I even considered lying about it and saying I was a home ec teacher, until  I realized that then no one would ever invite me to dinner. In the 60s, people feared teachers, or actively disliked them.  I'd have been much more popular if I had been a shoe clerk.

For that reason, I have been a bit bemused to realize that my most popular blogs are now about the very things I used to teach.  Last week's column on commas made my hit counter spike, and there were several retweets of the column. Maybe I'm just hanging out with a better crowd these days. At any rate, I'll be posting a few more guidelines that you may find helpful.  If you get tired of English class, just let me know.
And feel free to bring  your questions here.  I'll make an honest effort to answer them while not sounding like an elderly lady with warts on my chin.

We'll start tomorrow with a few easy ways to handle other marks of punctuation.