Monday, August 10, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Dying to Dye and Other Troubling Words

"I'm nervous," Charlie said, as his mother strapped on his small soccer cleats.
"Ask your father for some ideas on how to steel yourself before the game," his mother replied, patting him on the head.
Charlie nodded seriously and ran out of the room.
"Hey, Dad," he called into the den. "Mom said you'd teach me how to steal!"

Although Charlie's mistake represents the problem with homophones that can often be funny or entertaining, sometimes using one word in place of another can cause you a lot of trouble! Sure, people love to laugh at typos and word usage problems. But you most likely want to avoid that laughter (and let's be honest, judgment) from being directed at you. Even The Chicago Manual of Style looks harshly upon those who use one word in place for another. Chapter 5 states, "What is sensual involves indulgence of the senses—especially sexual gratification. What is sensuous usually applies to aesthetic enjoyment; only hack writers imbue the word with salacious connotations." There you have it. If you want to avoid being labeled a "hack writer" by the grammar powers-that-be, it may be wise to brush up on your word usage.
Here are some common problems, listed in Chicago, to get you started on "de-hackifying" yourself. Since it's August, and all of the retailers are already advertising for pencils and binders, we'll call this the back to school edition.

cite; site. The word cite when used as a noun means a citation or source of information. The word site "is a place or location." This may come in handy when you must cite a source about a historical site for your Global Studies class.

can; may. This word usage problem is the bane of existence for children with full bladders. Like our teachers told us while we squirmed and danced miserably in front of them, can means "to be able to." Conversely, may "suggests possibility" or the need for permission.

principle; principal. Principle typically means a fundamental truth that serves as a foundation for a belief system. Principal, as a noun, means the person with the most authority or highest position in an organization. If it wasn't for this common mistake, we may never have heard that wonderful phrase while stuck in the office for chasing boys on the playground. "Now, don't cry little Judy, everyone knows that your principal is your pal.

dying; dying. While dying means "to cease living," dyeing means "to color with a liquid." Both are present participles of die and dye, respectively. Example: The cheerleaders are all dyeing their hair red for the big game, but stopped tanning to avoid dying from skin cancer.

odious; odorous. Odious "means 'hateful'" while odorous means "'detectable by smell for better or for worse.'" When little boys come in from recess, they may be odorous, but only a bully is odious.

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