February 22:  Homophone Day

Today is a day of triple 2s:  2/22.  It’s a day we might think of those words in English that are pronounced alike but that are spelled differently, such as two, to, and too.  Homophones are a double edged sword.  On one side they add an enormous level of difficulty to English spelling.  For example, even if you have the spelling of a word “write,” you still have to check to make sure you have the “right” homophone.  On the other side, however, they also allot writers a lot of opportunities to create puns.  For example, you might have heard the old joke:

Why did the father who willed his three boys his cattle ranch demand that they name it “Focus”?

Because it was where the “sons raise meat” (sun’s rays meet).

Most homophones come in pairs (as in knew and new), but like to, two, and too, there are several triple homophones.  Here is a sample list:

aisle, I’ll, isle

aye, eye, I

bole, boll, bowl

cent, scent, sent

cite, sight, site

dew, do, due

for, fore, four

gnu, knew, new

idle, idol, idyll

meat, meet, mete

pare, pair, pear

peak, peek, pique

poor, pore, pour

raise, rays, raze

their, there, they’re

vane, vain, vein

way, weigh, whey

write, right, rite

Today’s Challenge:  Triple Word Play

What are some examples of triple homophones that vex writers, and how can you explain the correct usage of each word?  Select a trio of homophones and research the correct usages of each.  Then, write a clear explanation that explains clearly how each different spelling matches up with the correct meaning and usage of each word.  Below is an example that explains the homophones to, too, and two.

To:  To is a preposition, as in “Today I went to the store.”  It is also frequently used before a verb to form the infinitive, as in Today I hope to buy some new shoes.

Too:  Too can be used as a synonym for “also” as in I’m planning to go to college, too.  Too is also used to indicate excessiveness, as in My teacher gave me too much homework last night.

Two:  Two is used to spell out the number 2, as in, We bought two lobsters for dinner last night.

Use each of the three words correctly in a single sentence looks like this:

I wanted to eat two peppers, but I couldn’t because they were too spicy.

Quotation of the Day: I’m the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be. -Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

February 10:  Plain English Day

On this date in 2009, Representative Bruce Bradley, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the Plain Writing Act to the United States House of Representatives.  The stated purpose of the bill was “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (1).

Bradley was not the first politician to attempt to make government language more clear and jargon-free.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also an advocate of plain, clear English.   In 1942, an official wrote the following memo about wartime blackouts:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

Roosevelt demanded a revision, saying, “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows” (2).

Also during World War II, in 1944, a Texas congressman named Maury Maverick began a crusade against the unintelligible multisyllabic language of his colleagues.  He coined his own word for this fuzzy English:  gobbledygook

When Maury was asked what inspired his colorful word, he said, “It must have come in a vision. Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook” (3).

Sixty-six years later and approximately one month before Thanksgiving, Bruce Bradley’s bill became law.  It was signed by President Barack Obama on October 13, 2010.  Today, therefore, we can say, “Write in plain, clear English — it’s the law!”

Of course, writing in plain, clear language is not easy.  As writer William Zinsser explains, it is hard work and requires deliberate effort:

Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does.

Today’s Challenge:  Leaner Bacon

How can you translate 17th century English into plain, clear 21st century English?  Read Francis Bacon’s essay ‘On Revenge,” and then write a paraphrase of the essay in which you restate Bacon’s ideas in the clearest, most concise language possible.

Of Revenge by Francis Bacon

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man, to pass by an offence. That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong, for the wrong’s sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man, for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong, merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge, is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed, the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous, the party should know, whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be, not so much in doing the hurt, as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards, are like the arrow that flieth in the dark. Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read, that we are commanded to forgive our friends. But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also? And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Caesar; for the death of Pertinax; for the death of Henry the Third of France; and many more. But in private revenges, it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.

Quotation of the Day:  A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? –George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”

1-https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/hr946

2-http://cgiss.boisestate.edu/~billc/Writing/zinsser.html

3-Quinion, Michael. “GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gob1.htm

February 4:  Embarrassing Misspelling Day

Today is the birthday of former Vice President of the United States Dan Quayle.  Born in 1947 in Indianapolis, Quayle was elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, before he was selected by George H.W. Bush to join him on the Republican ticket in 1988.

Dan Quayle, official DoD photo.JPEGAs vice president, Quayle made official visits to 47 countries and served as the chairman of the National Space Council.  Unfortunately for Quayle his accomplishments while in office were overshadowed by a single embarrassing incident on June 15, 1992.  

While visiting a New Jersey elementary school, Quayle lent a hand by officiating a sixth-grade spelling bee.  As television news cameras rolled, a sixth-grader named William Figueroa approached the blackboard to spell the word, “potato.”  When Figueroa finished his correct spelling of the word, Quayle mistakenly asked him to add an “e” at the end of the word.  Despite the fact that he was relying on a card provided from the school for the “correct” spelling, the incident hurt Quayle’s credibility and added to the perception by some that he was not very smart.  In his memoir Standing Firm, Quayle acknowledged the enormity of his embarrassing moment:

It was more than a gaffe. It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was (1).

We might balance Dan Quayle’s moment of food-spelling infamy with a contrasting moment of food-spelling triumph. On June 4, 1970, at the 43rd Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., 14-year-old Libby Childress of Mount Airy, North Carolina won the title of the nation’s best speller when she correctly spelled “croissant.” (see September 12:  Croissants and Cappuccino Day)

Taking on the study of food words like “potato,” reveals the English language’s tendency to borrow words from a smorgasbord of  languages, often without altering the spelling from the original language.  Like so many words in English, these food words reveal the huge gulf that exists between English spelling and English pronunciation.  You might remember, for example, the English playwright George Bernard Shaw who gave us the word GHOTI, which he pronounced “fish.” (See July 26:  Ghoti Day).

Shaw based his pronunciation on the “logic” of following existing words in English:

-The gh in ghoti was the f sound in enough.

-The o was from the i sound in women.

-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.

Today’s Challenge:  A Buffet of Baffling Spellings

What are some examples of food words that have challenging spellings?  Brainstorm a list of at least ten food words with challenging spellings.  Here are a few examples at to get you started:

Dessert, Sherbet, Barbecue/Barbeque, Mascarpone, Tomato, Omelet/Omelette, Espresso, Fettuccine, Cappuccino, Broccoli, Zucchini, Caramel, Gyro, Pho, Sriracha, Quesadilla

Using a good dictionary, look up each of your words.  Write down the correct spelling, the definition, and the language of origin of each food item.  Once you have completed your list, challenge a friend to correctly spell the words on your menu.

Quotation of the Day:  I’ve always written high-quality sentences, prepared with the finest grammatical ingredients. In the coming year, I’m raising the bar even higher: I’ll be offering only artisanal words, locally grown, hand-picked, minimally processed, organically prepared, and sustainably packaged. -Michael Erard

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/64689/never-forget-time-dan-quayle-misspelled-potato

 

December 24:  Grammar Rules Day

On this day in 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg made a grammar error that went down in history.  Speaking to the Council of Constance in Latin, the Emperor called for the gathered assembly to eradicate the Papal Schism, a division in the Catholic Church in which three separate men claimed to be the true pope.  Unfortunately for the emperor, he mixed up the gender of the Latin word schisma using it as if it were feminine instead of the correct neuter form.  When the error was respectfully pointed out to him by a monk, Sigismund responded angrily say, “I am the Emperor of Rome!  Even if the word is neuter, it will be feminine from now on.”  

In response to Sigismund’s decree, a monk stood and proclaimed, “Caesar non supra grammaticos” – or “The Emperor is not above the grammarians.”

Ever since Sigismund’s historic fail, the expression “Caesar non supra grammaticos” has been used to remind us that the rules of English grammar and spelling are not given to us as authoritative decrees from on high; instead, they are based on the conventions of writing that are followed by actual writers.  They are also inherently democratic in that they apply to everyone, and no one individual has the power to arbitrarily change them.

Too often we see grammar as a study of the things we can’t do with language. Instead, we should view grammar for what we can do with it — it allows us to craft clear, quality sentences that allow us to share our best thinking with others.  If English is our first language, we have an unconscious understanding of how to put words together so that they make sense.  Written English, however, is different from spoken English.  Studying grammar gives us the specific language we need to diagnose errors and to reason-through how to correct them so that our sentences are clear.  Just as an auto mechanic knows the names of the different parts under the hood of a car, we should know the different parts of a sentence.  The mechanic’s job is to diagnose the problem and fix it so that the car will do its job, which is getting its owner efficiently from point A to point B.  Grammar is simply the mechanics of the sentence, and knowing grammar will help you make sure that all the parts work efficiently so that your sentences do their job, which is to clearly and efficiently communicate your ideas.

As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it, “. . . grammar should not be thought of as an ordeal of jargon and drudgery . . . . It should be thought of instead as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world:  our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head into another.  Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful” (79).

In other words, don’t be preoccupied with the rules of grammar; instead, focus on how grammar rules!

Today’s Challenge:  Grammar, not the Emperor, Rules
What’s your grammar pet peeve?  What one grammar rule do you find the most useful in crafting clear writing?  Identify a single grammar rule, and write an explanation of the rule with examples that show both the rule and violations of the rule.  Include the clearest possible explanation of the rule along with a rationale of why it is an important rule to know and how knowing the rule will help the writer.  The list of frequent errors below might help you zero in on a specific rule to write about:

Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Dangling participles, Ambiguous pronouns, Lack of subject/verb agreement, Lack of parallelism

(Common Core Language 1 and 2 – Conventions of Standard English)

Quotation of the Day:  A grammar book does not attempt to teach people how they ought to speak, but on the contrary, unless it is a very bad or a very old work, it merely states how, as a matter of fact, certain people do speak at the time at which it is written. –H.C. Wyld

1-Pinker, Stephen.  The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century