Archive for October, 2009

Homonyms, homophones, and homographs

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009


bullet-glyph21Subject: Homonyms, homophones, and homographs

I live near an avenue that has wide sidewalks on either side, where on Saturdays people set up tables to sell scarves and jewelry and hats, cheap batteries and electronics, incense and candles and tubs of shea butter. On warm days people bring folding chairs to sit under the trees, maybe set out a card table and play chess.

One spot, though, is kept open. It’s where a man on a mission to educate the youth of the neighborhood uses the pavement as a chalkboard, presenting lists of colorfully and evenly drawn math equations and spelling words titled with such exhortations as “Learn to Divide with Pride.”

This week, the title was simply “Homonyms.” Well, of course I had to stop, pull out some paper, and jot down the pairs he’d written.

The first thing I noticed was that alongside the predictable pairs such as waste/waist, pray/prey, and so/sew, he’d chosen less common examples (to me, anyway) such as roam/Rome, base/bass, hire/higher, and jeans/genes. (He also paired chilly with chilli, which he’d spelled with two ls, making me wonder how old the dictionary was that he was referring to.) He paired which with witch, two words that I don’t pronounce the same, though many people do. Then I noticed something else: some of his pairs reflected nonstandard dialectal pronunciations: while/wild, win/wind, least/lease. Whether or not this sidewalk educator realized that his pronunciation was nonstandard, his pairs were valid for him and probably for most of his audience.

But he made a common mistake: he wasn’t presenting homonyms. Homonyms are words that sound the same and are spelled the same, but have different meanings. The bank of a river and the bank where you might not want to be putting your money just now are two such words. So are the adjective fast and the adverb fast.

The pairs on the sidewalk were (more or less) homophones, not homonyms. Homophones are words that sound the same but may not be spelled the same. And homographs are spelled the same but may sound different, such as the difference between the verb refuse (with its stress on the second syllable and a voiced /z/) and the noun refuse (with its stress on the first syllable and an unvoiced /s/), or between present-tense read and past-tense read.

So a homonym is both a homograph and a homophone of another word, but the relationships are not always reciprocal: a homograph isn’t necessarily a homonym, and neither is a homophone.

Here’s your cheat sheet:

Homonym: same name (same sound and spelling)
Homophone: same sound
Homograph: same spellingCopyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Garner will inscribe copies of GMAU3

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, is offering to sign copies of the new third edition of the book. He sent a message to his Tip of the Day subscribers urging them to join the “grassroots effort” to increase the sales of this edition (because stores are reluctant to stock reference titles these days) by buying copies as holiday presents. In return for the favor, he says, he will “be happy to inscribe copies that you send to LawProse for that purpose, if you (1) include a filled-out FedEx airbill for returning them to you, and (2) suggest an appropriate inscription.”

To send a copy to Garner for signing, use the following information:

Bryan A. Garner
LawProse, Inc.
14180 Dallas Parkway
Suite 280
Dallas, TX 75254
(214) 691-8588

My review of the book will appear in the December 2009 – January 2010 issue of Copyediting.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Truly funny in-jokes for editors

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Oh, oh, oh—I have just discovered @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter, and I cannot stop laughing. Some posts from today alone:

While it’s tempting to call them “baristi” because of the Italian roots, the plural of “barista” is “journalism majors.”

The interrotilde is used to denote an ‘n’ that is pronounced as “WHUUUUUU?”

You cannot libel the dead. You can, however, libel the undead. Vampires have powerful lawyers and hypnotism, so be careful.

A sentence fragment occurs when you

.@erinfitzg: “Y’all” means “you all” and is acceptable if you are Texan. “Ya’ll” means “you will” and who the hell ever says that?

.@jsgf: I don’t know, jsgf, when do YOU think it’s OK to use the passive-aggressive voice, MR. SMART GUY?

The sentence fragment made me laugh out loud, which is problematic now that I have coworkers around me again. Anyway, this is a huge FollowFriday recommendation for any of you who are on Twitter but haven’t found me yet (@WendalynNichols, where I’m more irreverent than I am on @Copyediting).Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Down-style headlines

Friday, October 23rd, 2009


bullet-glyph21Subject: Down-style headlines

On October 18, subscribers to The Washington Post woke up to find their newspaper had been redesigned. (Here’s a PDF produced by the Post that is intended to explain the changes.) On October 19, the executive editor of the paper, Marcus Brauchli, participated in an online chat session about the redesign. A few of the questions were about the headline style: headlines are no longer capitalized in the way that gave its name to the style, but rather in “down” style.

Down-style capitalization is what we use in the pages of Copyediting: it is essentially sentence-style punctuation minus the period at the end, with an initial capital letter and all other words lowercased (except for proper names, of course). I wasn’t the editor when what was then called Copy Editor was redesigned, so I don’t know why that decision was made. But in explaining the reason for the Post’s decision to use down-style headlines, Brauchli said, “The new approach…is more readable and allows us to write slightly longer headlines. The old headline style, in which most words were capitalized, was formal and just isn’t as readable.”

I certainly think that down-style capitalization makes headlines more readable on the Web. Just compare the Web sites of The New York Times, which uses traditional headline-style capitalization, and The Washington Post, which uses down-style caps (though that’s about all that is readable, in my opinion, about its otherwise underwhelming Web site, with its moving-toward-tabloid look that is indistinguishable from many other online news sites).

I asked Bill Walsh, the A-section copy chief for the Post, what he thought about the new style. He told me, “We’re only on Day 3 [it was Wednesday when he replied], but I think the new headline style is achieving its goal. There’s more room to say something in most cases, and although there are mixed feelings about going down-style, I think it does provide a subtle nudge toward more conversational language.”

What do you think? Does headline-style capitalization make a headline easier or harder to read? Is it different in print than on the Web?Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: “Ten items or less” is just fine

Friday, October 16th, 2009


bullet-glyph21Subject: “Ten items or less” is just fine

Okay, I’ve just violated a principle of suspenseful writing by distilling my entire message into my headline. But I’ll bet it made you pay attention, because if you’re like most editors, you have a definite opinion about this one.

In my October 2 blog post about William Safire, I mentioned that a fellow “Lexicographic Irregular” was going to publish a remembrance of Safire, and I wasn’t going to steal his thunder about a specific point he made in the article. But now that the article has appeared (”The Maven, Nevermore,” by Ben Zimmer, in The New York Times Magazine, October 5, 2009), I can rant: I dearly wish that William Safire had never decided that “Ten items or fewer” was the correct way to style the sign above a supermarket’s express checkout — at least not to the point that he then felt compelled to persuade the Safeway grocery chain to change its signs from the disdained “Ten items or less.” I’ve noticed that the Whole Foods stores have painstakingly followed suit, and that is the problem: Safire’s campaign granted undue legitimacy to a misconception, and now it’s almost impossible to persuade the sign makers and customer service people otherwise — even when the result is something as patently idiotic as the following message I get when I send an e-mail to Fresh Direct, a grocery-delivery company: “Thank you for your message. We’ll respond in 24 hours — or fewer.”

How “normal” do the following sentences sound to you?

If the temperature is 20 degrees or fewer, we will keep the children indoors for recess.
When the truck is carrying a full load, it gets 15 miles to the gallon or fewer.
Most of these devices now cost $50 or fewer.
Please summarize the key selling points in 100 words or fewer.
If you work three days a week or fewer, you are considered half-time.

I could go on and on. The reason your instinct is to change fewer to less in the above sentences (unless you’ve had your instincts drilled out of you by too many visits to an acquiescent supermarket) is that each of the amounts in the above sentences represents a benchmark. When an amount is perceived as a metaphorical line — something one can go over or come under — it is notionally singular, not plural, and so less should be used, not fewer.

We generally don’t make mistakes with rates (miles per hour, dollars per hour, days per week, and so on), and that’s because the expression “X per Y” is perceived as a total amount. The singular rate (per hour, per day, per week, etc.) also separates the word with the plural marker on it (miles, dollars, days, etc.) from the alternative of or fewer/less, which helps prevent false attraction to the plural. Some people begin to be hesitant when it comes to time, temperature, and money, but most of us still get it right. When it comes to things that fall outside the familiar categories (rates, time, temperature, money), though, we often stumble.

And that’s where the problem with items on a list comes in: if the word items is plural, why does “ten or fewer” sound wrong? It’s because “ten items” is also a benchmark. If you come under it, you get the speedy line. If you go over it, you’re stuck behind the family with two carts, even if you have only 11 items. The sign doesn’t necessarily mean “ten items, or fewer items than that.” It can just as easily mean “ten items, or less than this benchmark.”

I am not about to mount a counter-campaign to persuade Whole Foods to see the light. But I did write to Fresh Direct, on the grounds that the company might want to know that it had taken things a bit too far and was making its customers snort (because I just know I’m Everycustomer). So far, I haven’t heard back, and the response message is unchanged. To its customer service people, I’m clearly another crank; that, to me, is a permanent — if relatively unimportant — legacy from William Safire.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Can you sniff out the dangler?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster alerted his tweeps today that Geoffrey Pullum, one of the linguists who founded the Language Log blog, had posted a piece about dangling modifiers.

Pullum’s stance toward anything that smells of prescriptivism is usually disdainful, so I was surprised to read in his post that he doesn’t like danglers any more than I do–though not, he says, because they’re truly ungrammatical, but because they’re unfair to readers.

Reading why Pullum would say that is candy enough for a grammar geek like me, but then he buried a truffle in his article: a sentence with a dangler in it. He invites readers to try to find it.

Can you?

The first person to e-mail me at with the correct answer will be sent a free set of Quick Check Editorial Reference Cards.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

UPDATE: We have a winner! As soon as I confirm that I have her permission, I will publish her name. The e-mail arrived at 2:16 p.m. EDT; the correct answer is “Floundering around for what could be as much as an extra second, which in language processing is a very long time, there were four different false leads planted in the text for us to pursue.” This is one of the most common types of danglers, in which a dummy subject (there) is modified by a clause that begins with a participle (floundering). The real referent, the pronoun that represents the ones doing the floundering, is us.

UPDATE on October 13, 2009: The winner is Nancy Friedman of Oakland, CA. Her Web site is

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: My compliments to you

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009


bullet-glyph21Subject: My compliments to you

Erin McKean, lexicographer extraordinaire, co-founder of Wordnik, and contributor to Copyediting newsletter, has articulated McKean’s Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.

I wish it truly were a law, because then every message we get that tells us we’ve misspelled complimentary in the banner at the top of the home page of would itself have an error in it, and I could “gotcha” right back at the writer. But then of course, according to the law, my own message would have an error in it, and so would the person’s response to that erroneous message, ad infinitum. So maybe it’s just as well to cite the law as a general caution not to be too triumphalist when pointing out others’ errors, rather than to expect it to apply every time.

So may I point out gently, in full expectation that someone’s going to quibble with something in this post, that we in fact use the word complimentary correctly?

One meaning of complimentary (with an i) is ‘free of charge’, and it’s applied to something that you’d usually expect to pay for, as in the complimentary cup of coffee you get if you buy a pound of beans, complimentary tickets to a show, or, yes, a complimentary copy of a publication. The meaning comes from the practice of sending one’s “compliments,” verbally or in writing, along with a gift or sample—a practice that seems to be fading, except perhaps among certain gentlemen in bars who still send drinks to a lady’s table with their compliments. Publishing houses, for instance, used to print slips of paper for an editor to include with a free copy of a book sent to a reviewer: the slip would say “With the compliments of” and then give the editor’s name or the name of the publisher. I haven’t seen one of those for a while; these days, I get a two-sided fact sheet from the public relations department.

Complementary (with an e) means ‘completing’, as in complementary angles, or ‘working well together’, as in complementary colors or complementary efforts. The forces of yin and yang are complementary, complementary medicine is a growing field, and your company’s strategists might at this very minute be planning new complementary products or services to enhance your core business.

So please, sign up for a complimentary copy of our newsletter if you haven’t read it. We think you’ll find that it complements other editorial resources quite nicely — including dictionaries, where you can look up the difference if you still don’t believe me!Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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William Safire, I’ll miss yelling at you

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

When I joined Random House Reference as the editorial director of its dictionary unit in January of 1998, it wasn’t long before I got a call from William Safire’s research assistant, asking me to weigh in on the origin of a word. I suppose I ought to have recorded that moment, and the word, in a diary: the day I joined the Lexicographic Irregulars.

I hadn’t done anything to merit inclusion other than being hired to fill a post that Sol Steinmetz, who had edited Safire’s 1993 Political Dictionary, had retired from. But I felt as though I’d arrived, and I was grateful that Safire kept me on his list of consultants even after Random House closed the dictionary division. Oxford published the most recent edition of Safire’s Political Dictionary in 2008; the copy that Safire sent to me is inscribed to “Wendalyn Nichols of Random House,” so perhaps he never quite knew what had happened to the division.

In the days after the closure I did try to enlist Safire’s considerable influence in shaming the publisher for shipping 31 filing cabinets’ worth of dictionary citations to storage in Iron Mountain, where they remain to this day, instead of donating them to a university where somebody could get some use out of them. But that was a fool’s quest: Random House was still Safire’s publisher at the time, and anyway, the campaigns he was interested in were national in scope.

I admire the way Safire combined political and linguistic commentary, the way he never pretended to be anything other than the amateur he was, in the truest sense of the word: a devoted lover and student of his subjects. Not that I agreed with him all the time on matters linguistic, or much of the time at all on matters political. (I learned yesterday from another of the Irregulars about a misconception that Safire is probably responsible for proliferating; I won’t scoop my friend because the point is part of an article he’s writing about Safire, but once that’s published, I’ll be all over it in this blog.) And sometimes he misquoted me, or quoted me but didn’t credit me, or otherwise made me yell like the ungrateful coattail-rider I was when I opened the Sunday New York Times Magazine and read what he’d written.  He’d become such a fixture that he was familiar, and as such someone to carp about. But every blogger like me owes a debt to William Safire, who showed us that the nature of discourse itself was a worthy subject for national discourse.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Fly away home

Thursday, October 1st, 2009


bullet-glyph21Subject: Fly away home

The way children acquire language and sort out which forms are regular and which aren’t is a subject that has fascinated linguists for…well, probably for as long as there have been animals called “linguists.” Pity the poor child who, like mine, is born to a linguist.

I pay too close attention to the way my daughter speaks. She’s beginning to push back when I correct “Me and Jade want a playdate” or “I wanna lay down.” So I had to laugh when she was watching the Yankees with her father and declared that the sports announcer had made a mistake: “He said the guy flied out. But he flew out, huh, Mom?”

Oh, man, if only irregulars would stay that way. It’s hard enough to teach them, and then here come the pesky exceptions.

As it happens, Steven Pinker discusses this very verb, to fly out, in his book Words and Rules—the book I’ve been reading on my commute. “No mere mortal has ever flown out to center field,” he notes.

Part of the reason we say flied out and not flew out is that we perceive a semantic difference between actual flight and the “verbed” noun that is a fly. Pinker offers the words lowlifes and high-sticked as examples of similar situations: a lowlife isn’t a type of life, and a hockey player’s high-sticking has nothing to do with the irregular verb to stick, so we don’t say “a bunch of lowlives” or “He high-stuck his opponent.”

But Pinker also points out that later semantic developments can’t account entirely for why to fly out is a regular verb, because some verbs that are built from irregular verbs retain that irregularity in their past-tense forms, and not all new nouns become regular either: overshot, undid, superwomen, and snowmen are some of the examples he gives.

Instead, he says that fly underwent two separate transformations that resulted in the regular verb flied out. First, when the verb to fly became the noun a fly (in the sense of ‘a ball that flies up in a high arc’), it made no sense for the entry in our mental lexicon to retain an association with the verb’s irregular past tense form because nouns don’t have tenses. Then, when it became a verb again, the semantic association with the newish noun fly was too strong to allow the connection with the old irregular verb form to be reestablished. Coinages take regular patterns unless a strong semantic connection to an irregular form intervenes, so we have flied out.

Try explaining that to a first grader.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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