Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On homophonia

Okay, so I'm a word Nazi. (I know, I know--take a moment to clutch your pearls… Moment's over.) I work in writing. I come by it honestly. And there are a few mistakes I've seen from people who otherwise tend to have their stuff grammatically and semantically together. George Orwell called the phenomenon "dead metaphors": when a common phrase loses all context and becomes just words arranged in a pattern, so it's easy to sub in a wrong word for a right one and end up with a both virulent and self-sustaining case of incorrectness.

Read on to learn about a few common mistakes. (I'd say you should read on if you suspect you're making mistakes, but you probably don't even know you're making them, or else you'd stop doing it.)

You don't reign someone in. It doesn't have anything to do with royalty or reigning over anyone. (Besides, that would be "reigning over," not "reigning in.") it's reining someone in, like they're a horse and you're pulling back on the reins to restrain them.

The horse was getting kind of crazy, so I reined him in.
Congress needs to rein in its out-of-control spending habits.

Similarly, you don't give someone free reign. This one's a more understandable mistake--someone could, theoretically, be free to reign--but it's still wrong. It's about horses again.

I gave the horse free rein so he could jump the fence unhindered.
Atkins doesn't allow you to eat dessert, but you do get free rein to attack the carving station.

You don't tow the line. You aren't a ski boat. (Or maybe you are a ski boat. I don't know your life.) You toe the line: Someone has drawn a line that you're meant to line up on, as in the military, and by putting your toes on it, you're doing as directed or performing as is expected of you.

If you don't toe the line, I'm going to make you peel potatoes.
The boss has laid down her expectations for you--you'd better start toeing the line, or you're going to get fired.