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.

You don't pawn things off on people. You're not trying to sell them your belongings. (Unless you are trying to sell them your belongings, in which case… pawn away.) You're palming, like a magician does: hiding something in the palm of your hand that you're going to hand off to a knowing or unknowing subject.

The crooked dealer palmed the ace off to the cheating player.
The editor tried to palm off her work on her assistant.

You don't hone in on anything. Although sometimes you do, depending on which grammar book you're looking at. Regardless, if you're going for accuracy, you're homing in on something--approaching a target, in the manner of a homing pigeon flying determinedly home. To hone something means to make it sharper, like a knife (which could be dangerous to a pigeon) or an argument (which you're certain to lose, because those pigeons are sharp [much like a knife (that has been honed)]).

The pigeon knew where it was going and homed in on its destination.
After lengthy investigation, the engineers are beginning to home in on the source of the problem.

You don't have vocal chords. This is another tricky one, because when you think voice you think singing, and when you think singing you think music, and when you think music you think chords. Well, it doesn't really matter what you think, because "chords" is wrong. The vocal cords are two pieces of tissue stretched across the windpipe that vibrate to make sound. That sound might be part of a chord, but it isn't itself likely to be a chord unless you're a polyphonic Buddhist monk. And if you are, that's awesome. Thanks for reading.

The polyphonic Buddhist monks could make their vocal cords sing several notes at once, which is full-on awesome, and they're also nice to hang out with.

You aren't phased by anything. Now, maybe you phase, after which you will have had phased, but you'll never be phased. And phasing suddenly might faze you, in the sense of being surprising or disconcerted.        

The schmuck acted like he wasn't fazed by the monks' polyphony, but he was totally faking.

Problems for me? Helath, cacner, and uniservity. Not misspelling, per se--just fat-fingering. But not great if you work at a uniservity helath system with a nationally ranked cacner center. Sometimes, when I type too fast, my job is hard. What trips you up?


B said...

It's amazing how many times I seem to use "fro" when I meant "for" and spell check never catches it. Dyslectic typing.

Sarah in Huntsville said...

Let's not forget "mute" for "moot" and "all intensive purposes" for "all intents and purposes." I see those ALL THE TIME from professionals who really ought to know better.