Tag Archives: English usage

Look-alikes and Sound-alikes

So many words look and sound similar but have different meanings. Here are a few:

 

 

 

FORTH means onward or forward: Brianna set forth from her apartment, not knowing what to expect from the blind date at Starbucks.

FOURTH has within it the number four, containing its meaning.

 

DESSERT. Yummy. Hard to resist. Mmmm. Strawberry shortcake.

DESERT as a noun means a sandy, dry area. As a verb, with the accent on the second syllable, it means to abandon or leave behind.

 

COMPLEMENT completes something: A glass of beer is not the perfect complement to a serving of strawberry shortcake. Her sweater complements her green eyes.

COMPLIMENT means praise: Why is it difficult for so many people to accept a compliment?

 

A LOT is a piece of land you can build on. It also means “many” or “much.” There is no such word as alot.

ALLOT means to parcel out or distribute. I told my children I would allot them two pieces of Halloween candy each day.

 

MINER is a person working in a mine.

MINOR means lesser or not particularly important: It’s hard to believe Van Gogh was once considered a minor artist. If you are a minor (less than legal age), you cannot buy alcohol in your state.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Spoonerisms

 

100_0895.JPG

Frigate bird, Galapagos  © Judi Birnberg

Now that you know what a mondegreen is, we can turn to spoonerisms, named for the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930). Apparently, he was prone to transposing the initial consonants of two words to such an extent that his mistakes came to be named after him.

Can’t you picture him officiating at a wedding and telling the groom, “It is now kisstomary to cuss the bride”?

In England, a popular dish is chish and fips. You might want a few belly jeans for dessert. And George W. Bush, known for his verbal gaffes, once declared, “If the the terriers and bariffs are torn down, the economy will grow.”

Maybe Rev. Spooner would have recognized my illustration as a brigate fird.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

What In the World is a Mondegreen?

 

101_0013.JPG

©  Almost Spring           Judi Birnberg

For my next few posts, I’m going to entertain you with spoonerisms, eggcorns, malaprops, and mondegreens. In fact, I wrote this particular post almost three years ago, and you may not have been a reader then or may have forgotten what a mondegreen is. They tickle me no end.

Have you ever discovered lyrics that were not what you originally thought you heard? You misinterpret a phrase that sounds very similar to the real deal, but your interpretation gives it a new meaning, one that may raise eyebrows. That, dear readers, is a mondegreen.

The name was coined in 1954 by author Sylvia Wright, who misheard the lyrics of an old Scottish ballad; she thought these were the words:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

In fact, the last line is And laid him on the green.

Here are some other mondegreens:

the girl with colitis goes by (the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”)

There’s a bathroom on the right (There’s a bad moon on the rise, from “Bad Moon Rising”)

Surely, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life. A more common reading of the 23rd Psalm includes the line, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

When I was very young, a popular singer named Patti Page recorded a song called “Cross Over the Bridge.” It contains the line, Leave your fickle past behind you, and true romance will find you…. I was just discovering love songs on the radio and had no idea what “fickle” meant. To my ears, Patti Page was singing, Leave your pickle pats behind you….

I still wonder what pickle pats had to do with true romance. And what are pickle pats, anyway? Send me your own mondegreens, please! I bet you all have at least one.

 

2 Comments

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Continuous vs Continual

images.jpg

These two words are not synonymous. Continuous  means an unbroken event or series of events. Continual means events that occur repeatedly but not in an unbroken period of time:

The snow fell continuously from Monday through Thursday, leaving four feet of snow over much of New England. (It never stopped snowing.)

The snow fell continually from Monday through Thursday, leaving three feet of snow over much of New England. (It snowed on and off during those four days.)

I wish I had a simple way for you to remember the difference between these two words. The only idea I can come up with is that continual is a shorter word than continuous; the snow that falls continually has breaks, so it falls for a shorter period of time. Any better suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

A Word to the —wise Wise

 

malos-molones-10-personajes-despreciables-que-publico-adora_0

Speaking of locutions that make me cringe (we were, weren’t we?), the suffix “—wise” is near the top of my list. Limit it to a very few situations:

• Clockwise, counter clockwise

• Otherwise

• Lengthwise

Spare others from uses such as “healthwise,” “timewise,” “costumewise,” “stylewise.”

Instead of saying or writing, “Healthwise, I’ve had some problems with my elbow recently,” just drop that silly introductory word. It adds nothing.  Nor does “costumewise”:  “Costumewise, I’m going as Darth Vader as a schoolboy.” Just describe the getup you are planning on wearing to that Star Wars-themed Halloween party.

And so ends my word(s) to the wise.

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language

Abbreviations vs. Acronyms

images.jpg

When people see an abbreviation, many refer to it as an acronym, thinking they mean the same thing. They don’t.

You all know what an abbreviation is.  An acronym is also an abbreviation—but one that is pronounced as a word:

NASA

Snafu ( it lost the caps when it became a common word)

Scuba (ditto)

Fubar (ditto)

MOMA in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles

You’d never say “Oosuh” or “Yoosuh,” so USA is not an acronym, just an abbreviation.

All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms.

(If you’re not sure what snafu and fubar stand for, look them up in your online dictionary; there you will discover the slightly off-color meanings.)

Leave a comment

Filed under All things having to do with the English language