Let’s talk about homophones

First, let’s define “homophone” so we’re all clear on what we’re talking about. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “homophone” is defined as:

  • one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling (such as the words to, too, and two)

There are LOTS of these in the English language, and they’re really, really easy for writers to mix up; they’re also really, really easy to miss at the editing phase, especially the self-editing phase. (This is why my husband and sister are invaluable in editing my blog posts…though usually after I’ve published. So I look stupid for a day or two until one of them points it out and then I fix it. Imperfect system, I know).

Here are some common sets of homophones:

  • Two, to, and too (as mentioned above)
  • Ate and eight
  • Ant and aunt
  • There, they’re, and their
  • Bare and bear
  • Night and knight
  • Tale and tail
  • Through and threw
  • Its and it’s (this one is mixed up SO often)
  • Etc….

While I was thinking about this, I had a momentary mental block and did some googling – there are so many of these (usually pairs) that I hadn’t even thought of! I stumbled upon this really interesting site that has a bunch of worksheets for teaching kids how to choose the right (write? hehe) homophone, check it out!

Not on my short list above and probably not often taught to children is the following set, which also happens to be the one that has prompted my current rant about homophones:

  • Peek, peak, and pique

Now, most people are probably taught the difference between “peek” and “peak,” but I’m going to venture a guess that “pique” is not commonly taught – because I rarely ever see it used correctly; typically I see “peak” used in its place. However, I just read a novel in which I’m honestly not sure any of the three homophones was used correctly even once (eek)! So, I’m going to try to clear up the confusion with some definitions and sentence examples – and then make a plea for authors to utilize the services of a good copyeditor!

For starters, definitions (all from Merriam-Webster online):

Peek (also peeked; peeking; peeks): 1a: to look furtively (A little girl peeked around the corner of the chair at him.); b: to peer through a crack or hole or from a place of concealment often used with in or out (peeked in through the window; peeked out at us from behind the curtains; 2: to take a brief look: glance (peeked ahead to the next chapter to see what would happen)

Peak: 1: a pointed or projecting part of a garment; especially: the visor of a cap or hat (The cap’s peak shades his eyes.); 2: promontory (a steep rocky peak); 3: a sharp or pointed end (the peak of a roof); 4a(1) : the top of a hill or mountain ending in a point (the fog hung … heavily on the peak of the hill), (2): a prominent mountain usually having a well-defined summit; b: something resembling a mountain peak (Beat the cream until it forms stiff peaks.); 5a: the upper aftermost corner of a fore-and-aft sail; b: the narrow part of a ship’s bow or stern or the part of the hold in it; 6a: the highest level or greatest degree (a singer at the peak of her popularity); b: a high point in a course of development especially as represented on a graph (The graph shows that murders in the city reached a peak two years ago.); 7: widow’s peak

Pique (also piqued; piquing): 1a: to excite or arouse especially by a provocation, challenge, or rebuff (sly remarks to pique their curiosity); b: pride (he piques himself on his skill as a cook); 2: to arouse anger or resentment in: irritate (what piques linguistic conservatives)

So, here are some ways you can NOT use the above words:

  • A collared shirt cannot “peak” out from inside a sweater. (Correction: “peek”)
  • A subject cannot “peak” the interest of a character (Correction: “pique”)
  • One cannot reach the “peek” of anything – be it a mountain, a social hierarchy or anything else. (Correction: “peak”)

And now my plea: Writers – PLEASE find yourself a good copyeditor to ensure your work is free from such easily preventable errors – this could be a friend, spouse, parent, etc. It doesn’t have to cost you money but WILL bolster your reputation as an author.

 

Superlative vs. Comparative – Getting all grammar-y!

So I acknowledge that I am sort of uptight about grammar (which I get from my dad), so I’m usually surprised and a bit disappointed in myself when someone corrects my grammar. So recently I had a little text convo with my parents where I described my 6-year-old as the baby’s “oldest sister” (she has two sisters, both older than she is). My dad texted back, “older.” And I said, “isn’t it ‘oldest’ so it can be clear which sister I’m talking about?” He said no, so I had to look it up.

Apparently, according to traditional grammar rules, my dad is right: the superlative form (-est) is reserved for comparing groups of three or more. Since I was speaking of only two of my girls, the comparative form (-er) would have been more appropriate.

Really, I should have known my dad was right; he usually is about these things. I just don’t like to be corrected.

That said, this seems to be one of those rules that is frequently broken – so now it’s more of a “rule.” There are discussion boards galore of people going back and forth trying to figure out when to use the superlative vs. the comparative, and really my original way of saying it has become pretty common in spoken English. I even double checked The Elephants of Style (my review here) to see what Bill Walsh has to say about it, but it’s actually not covered in the book.

Basically, I’m left with this: The superlative should be reserved for comparisons among groups of three or more items; however, that will sometimes lead to confusion, and so many people are going to choose clarity over grammatical-correctness and break the rule.

Now that I have ineloquently shown myself to be a HUGE grammar nerd, please – weigh in! Tell me what YOU think!

Is it an idiom?

Image result for clipart idiom

So it has been suggested to me by one of the smartest people I know that “something caught their eye” is an idiom, rather than bad grammar. Further, this person (who knows me kinda well…) suggested I don’t like it because it’s an idiom and therefore not formal English.

A few thoughts:

  • If it’s an idiom, it’s a dumb one and I still think it sounds bad.
  • I’m not opposed to idioms, in and of themselves. They reflect a common culture, and therefore form an important part of language.
  • That said, they are not formal English and so sometimes (ok, maybe a lot of times) I don’t like them. I think it’s more important for them to be used appropriately – it’s important to avoid too much cliché in good literature, for example. Idioms have a place in children’s books in order to teach our kids that cultural aspect of language.
  • When I was studying Italian, I really struggled with idioms because they defied all grammar rules. I guess that’s true in English, too, and apparently I struggle a little with them even in my native language.

Maybe I don’t like idioms…

Thoughts?