Peeking, peeving, and grubbing around

October 6, 2020

I have three new posts up at my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Grubbing around for etymology digs into the origins and development of grub:

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Piqued by peek and peak sorts out these often-confused homophones, offering mnemonics for each:

To peak (v.) means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.

Policing grammar on the radio looks at an example of usage-peeving, wherein a journalist who spoke on Irish radio was criticised by one listener for her grammar:

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

Landscape photo, with a mountain range in the background and one prominent peak near the centre. Blue sky and wispy clouds. Below the mountains, a swathe of trees, and in the foreground some light-brown sand and tufts of grass - the photo was taken from near ground level.

Grubbing around in the sand in County Mayo,
the Croagh Patrick peak in the background

Eggcorns, complements, and multiple modals

April 21, 2020

For my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about these linguistic items.

Wet your appetite for eggcorns is an overview of that special type of error known by linguists as eggcorns, examples of which include wet your appetite and gun-ho:

Close-up of acorn danging at the end of a thin stem. The acorn is green in a pale-brown cap and points down towards the ground. The background is greenish-grey and out of focus.Whet is not a common or familiar verb, but wet is, and wet suggests the way your mouth waters or your stomach juices flow when you’re about to eat. So wet your appetite seems right. Gung-ho means ‘very enthusiastic, especially about something that might be dangerous’, but gung (from Chinese) is not a familiar morpheme in English, whereas gun is – and gun is strongly associated with danger. Hence gun-ho.

The post shows how eggcorns differ from folk etymologies, malapropisms, and mondegreens. (Inevitably, someone was enraged by the headline and jumped straight to the comments section.)

*

You might should know about double modals looks at a grammatical feature used in some dialects of English, especially in the USA but also in Scotland and northern England:

Can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, ought, and dare are modal verbs (aka modal auxiliaries, or just modals for short). Combine them and you get a double modal. The most common forms, at least in American English, are might could, might can, and might would, but many other pairs occur: might should, may can, should ought, must can, may will, and so on. Different combinations will be more or less typical or acceptable for different users.

I came across one just this morning (‘We might could work that together’) in the book I’m reading, Fear Itself by Walter Mosley – who also featured in my earlier post on multiple modals – but I never hear them spoken in Ireland.

*

A complement of compliments aims to sort out these words and their associated adjectives, complimentary and complementary. Confusable pairs like these are often explained in books and on websites without any help with remembering the difference, which is where the real problem lies. So I offer mnemonics:

Complement probably gives people more difficulty. Its meaning is related to complete, with which it shares the first six letters – including that ‘e’ in the middle, which is our next mnemonic. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for the verb, sense 1, has the sample line: ‘The plants are chosen to complement each other’, and for sense 2: ‘This project is intended to complement, not replace, local authority programmes.’ Both convey the sense of something being completed – or supplemented, which, with its medial ‘e’, reinforces the mnemonic.

If you have alternative mnemonics, or even complementary ones, let’s hear them.

[Image cropped from original by Rene Mensen, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.]

Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.

*


Who’s confused by whose confusion?

December 17, 2012

The following exchange appears in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl in Landscape (on p. 208 of my Faber and Faber edition, 2002):

“I don’t have a home,” said Ben Barth.

“Well, who’s fault is that?” said Wa.

Who’s is a contraction of who is or who has (or occasionally who was): Who’s going? Who’s got tickets? Looks who’s talking; whereas whose is a possessive pronoun – it’s who in the genitive case – so it should have been used in the quoted passage: whose fault is that?

Confusion arises because who’s and whose are pronounced identically, and also because the ’s in who’s can mislead people into thinking it has to do with possession: If the cap isn’t Jo‘s or Jim‘s, then who‘s whose is it? (This apostrophe-led impression of possession probably also inspires the erroneous your’s, her’sour’s and their’s.)

Who’s for whose is a common mistake in informal writing, and it sometimes sneaks past editors too. To keep who’s in its rightful place, you can use the same mnemonic I recommended for it’s and its: just as it’s always means it is or it has, so who’s means who is or who has. Bring this to mind any time you’re uncertain, and you shouldn’t slip up.

I liked Girl in Landscape, incidentally; it’s a coming-of-age story in a sci-fi setting with elements of mystery and western. It also has examples of dialectal would of (We should of killed them; you’d of met him), which I wrote about recently. I’m not a fan of the construction, but since I’ve seen it in dialogue from several capable authors, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t say the same for who’s fault.

Update:

Another example of the mistake, this time in the Guardian (‘EDM’s shameful secret: dance music singers rarely get paid’, 6 August 2013):

guardian typo - who's whose

And in Seth’s graphic novel It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

seth - it's a good life, if you don't weaken - whose who's

James Crumley’s novel One to Count Cadence (Picador edition, 1994):

james-crumley-one-to-count-cadence-whose-whos

Less commonly, the confusion occurs the other way around, as in this article in the Belfast Telegraph:

belfast telegraph whose who's confusion

And in Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross’s biography of Kurt Cobain:

"Hey, whose got all the pot?" yelled Krist.


Why people misspell ‘just deserts’

August 26, 2012

The misspelt phrase just desserts appeared in a recent Businessweek article. (It’s now fixed, so here’s a screenshot; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to alert them.) This is a common error even in careful writing, and it’s an understandable one. The correct spelling is just deserts. It means ‘what one deserves or merits’ – usually punishment.

Because it’s spoken with stress on the second syllable – just deserts – many writers infer the spelling desserts, a familiar word pronounced the same way. Dessert comes from French dessert, from Latin desservir ‘clear the table’, literally ‘un-serve’ or ‘de-serve’.

The similar Latin word deservire ‘serve well’ or ‘merit by service’ led to Old French deservir ‘deserve’, the feminine past participle of which is deserte. This entered Middle English as desert: ‘what is deserved’. It’s an altogether different noun (with different origin) from the Sahara or Antarctic type of desert, an arid place with little or no vegetation.

Shakespeare used desert this way. From Sonnet no. 72:

Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart

Nowadays, desert (n.) is seldom used in contexts other than just deserts, so it’s no surprise people don’t know it. Maybe they see *just desserts as a food-inspired metaphor: a fitting outcome after an event, like a tart that can be sweet or rotten depending on what poetic justice ordains. It’s a coherent but misleading folk etymology.

To bring the correct spelling more readily to mind, decline dessert. Remember the little-known noun desert and its connection to one-s deserve: just deserts are what one justly deserves.

*

Edit: @WelshPixie tells me she attended a military defence expo where a large poster showed off a ‘Dessert Runner’ truck. A Google search shows how popular a misspelling this is.


How to avoid confusing ‘pore’ and ‘pour’

June 5, 2012

The homophones pour and pore are sometimes confused: typically pour replaces pore in some form of the phrase pore over. For readers who notice the error – and many do – it can conjure up surreal images of liquid people flowing over the material at hand.

The mistake is usually limited to casual contexts, but it occasionally slips through into edited prose, such as this Irish Independent story from last week:

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says this mistaken use of pour “seems to be growing more common in less attentively edited publications”. Yet the words are not difficult to distinguish. Here are brief explanations, along with mnemonics – if you need them – to help remember the appropriate spellings.

Pore as a verb is usually followed by over, less often (but increasingly) by through, and sometimes – in the sense ‘to ponder’ – by on. Pore over means to read or study attentively; to scrutinise: you might pore over a text or a map. Think of the re common to pore and read.

Pour normally has to do with flowing or causing to flow: decanting a liquid or granular substance out of a container. You might pour tea from a pot, or sand from a bucket. Notice that the u in pour conveniently resembles a container.

Why people replace pore with pour is unclear to me; maybe the familiar spelling of pour comes more readily to mind, or perhaps pore is thought of only as a noun (referring to small holes in skin, rocks, or plants). But the words are easily kept distinct with the mnemonics I’ve set out above. If you have a different trick, do let me know.

Edit:

The mistake appears in Steven Bach’s otherwise well-proofread Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate. From my Faber & Faber edition, 1986:

Steven Bach - final cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - pore pour

Jenny Diski’s Like Mother, Vintage edition, 1990:

Like Mother - pore pour confused

Máirín O’Connor’s story ‘Troubled Water’, in the collection Writers’ Week Award-Winning Short Stories 1973–1994, edited by David Marcus and published by Marino Books in 1995:

Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah:

Stanisław Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, translated by Michael Kandell and Christine Rose:

"I'm not just another petty official pouring [sic] over a lot of meaningless papers, I'm not another blasted bureaucrat!"


Keeping ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ discreetly discrete

August 29, 2011

Wordnik’s recent collection of commonly confused words reminded me that it’s been a while since I wrote a post of this sort.* Time for another.

Discreet and discrete are often mixed up. It’s easily done: not only are they homophones with near-identical spelling, they’re also doublets, meaning they diverged from the same original word. In modern English, their spellings and meanings are distinct. Below are mnemonics to help you remember which adjective is which.

Discreet is probably the more familiar word, and is usually used to refer to people, especially their speech, appearance, or behaviour. It means unobtrusive, circumspect and prudent, careful not to attract attention or cause embarrassment, able to keep a secret. Discretion is the noun form. You could think of the adjacent e’s in discreet discreetly sharing a secret: they couldn’t do this with a t in the way.

She promised to be discreet with any sensitive information.
As the meeting began, he yawned discreetly.

Discrete generally means separate, non-continuous, individually distinct; it also has technical usages relating to possible parts or values. Discreteness is the related noun. To remember this spelling, think of the t separating the e’s and keeping them distinct from one another.

A sentence is composed of discrete words.
We divided the work into discrete sections.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has more about the words’ overlapping histories, and shows that they are quite often misspelled even in reputable publications – unless these instances indicate that the words’ spellings are gradually becoming interchangeable again.

But even if that were the case – I’m sceptical – it doesn’t get you off the hook. Careful readers will notice what is, in current usage, a mistake, and may judge your writing accordingly. If you have trouble distinguishing discreet from discrete, use the mnemonics above; or if you have a different trick, do let me know in a comment.
 
 
* If you browse my spelling tag, you’ll find (among other things) posts about its and it’s, minuscule, ad nauseam, climatic and climactic, stationary and stationery, peddle and pedal, principal and principle, affect and effect, forego and forgo.