Commonly misspelled words, part 1: Not ‘too’ hard ‘to’ learn.

There are many homonyms in English; words which sound the same but have different meanings and different spellings. Some are so common that we rarely need help to differentiate them, but sometimes people need a mnemonic to help tell them apart.

MnemonicContractions are a common variant of homonyms; if the apostrophe doesn’t indicate a possessive, such as “Samantha’s book,” then it’s a contraction. They can often be eliminated as a confusing homonym by simply expanding the contraction.

Here’s a list of some commonly mixed up words, accompanied by some quick mnemonics to help determine which one should be used where.

To: Expressing motion in the direction of (a particular location)
“She is going to Toronto.”
Too: (1) A higher degree than is desirable or possible; excessively. (2) Also.
“He had too much ice cream.” “Is she coming, too?”

Handy mnemonic: If it has a second ‘o’ that’s one ‘too’ many.


They’re: A contraction of ‘they are.’
They’re going to a restaurant.”
Their: Belonging to or associated with people or things previously mentioned.
“Where did they put their leftovers?”
There: In, at, or to that place or position, opposite of here.
“The leftovers are right there on the table.”

Handy mnemonic: ‘There’ has ‘here’ in it.


Weather: Atmospheric conditions at a particular time and place.
“The forecast of rainy weather may cause the event to be rescheduled.”
Whether: Expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives.
 “She’s trying to decide whether to go to the party, or finish her assignment.”

Handy mnemonic: ‘Whether’ expresses a question, and starts with ‘wh’ like other questions, what, where, which, why, who.


Breathe: The verb; to inhale and exhale.
“I can’t breathe.”
Breath: The noun; the air that is inhaled or exhaled.
“Take a deep breath.”

Handy mnemonic: The action of breathing is more ‘energetic’ than the breath itself, so it has an ‘e’ on the end.


You’re: A contraction of ‘you are.’
You’re going to have to practice more.”
Your: Belonging to the person or people that the speaker is addressing.
Your order is ready to be picked up.”

No mnemonic here, once you expand your contraction, you’re all set.


Desert: (1) A dry climatic zone, often sandy and barren.
“Surviving in a desert requires a large amount of water.”
(2) To leave or abandon a person, place or organization.
“Now is not the time to desert your family, when you need each other the most.”
Dessert: A sweet course consumed after a meal.
“She had chocolate cake for dessert.”

Handy mnemonic: Dessert is the one you would want two helpings of, so it has a double ‘s’. To desert something is to leave it on its own, so it just has one ‘s’. Like-wise, a desert is a barren place, so only one ‘s.’


I hope these are helpful to you either as a personal reference, or as a teaching aid. The internet is full of people who could probably use some help with these problem words, so pass it along. Enjoy, and write on.

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The abuses of ‘literally,’ and how nice thoughts can help.

Normally, I am more of a descriptive linguist than a prescriptive one. Language, after all, is a living dynamic thing that is constantly in use and being changed by its speakers. New words get picked up, old words are forgotten, and over the years, many meanings drift into something else entirely. Occasionally, however, I want to put my prescriptivist foot down in the name of clarity.

The goal of language is to communicate ideas as clearly as possible, which makes the hazards of generic words or multiple meanings all the more challenging. Recently, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has accepted the new popular meaning of ‘literally’, which is literally the opposite of the actual definition. This is unfortunate, since it pretty much renders the word useless and condemns it to join the generic emphasis ranks with ‘very’ and ‘really.’

Literally

Words do change over time, and this one may have literally drifted too far to be useful in its older context. It’s sad, because it is such a good word, and has a wealth of nuances and connotations, particularly in its complete rejection of figurative interpretation, which none of its synonyms quite capture. That said, this is English, and if we need a word with a particular meaning, we’ll probably just steal it from somewhere else.

Whenever I get annoyed by changing word usage, I try to remind myself of two things: How much that word has probably changed before I first heard it, and ‘nice.’ I’ll get to ‘nice’ in a moment.

‘Literal’ has a fairly straightforward etymology, considering how long it’s been with us. We got ‘letter’ from Old French in the 13th century, from which we eventually derived literal and literature (Late Middle English), then alliteration in the early 17th century. The French got it from the Latin ‘littera’ which meant either a written communication or an alphabetic symbol, and both meanings got carried through to English. The Latin ‘litteralis’ also tagged along, meaning ‘of a letter,’ which contributed more directly to the derivation of ‘literal’ or literally.’

In essence, the word literally hasn’t changed much until recently, so on we go to ‘nice.’ Here’s a word with a more interesting drift of meanings. It started out as two words in Latin, ‘ne-’ (not) and ‘scire’ (know), which gave rise to ‘nescire’ meaning to not know, or to be ignorant. This gave us the word ‘nescience,’ which we still have in English as an adjective meaning ignorance or lack of knowledge, but that didn’t get added until the early 17th century. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Nescience

Middle English picked up ‘nice’ from Old French around the 14th century with the meaning of ‘simple or silly,’ and it rapidly picked up connotations of wanton and foolish. This can be seen in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, where he speaks of ‘nice wenches,’ meaning disreputable women. It developed a range of largely negative senses, from ‘dissolute’, ‘ostentatious, showy’, ‘unmanly, cowardly’, and ‘delicate, fragile’ to ‘strange, rare’, and ‘coy, reserved.’ Around the 16th century, it started to be used in a more positive sense, as ‘fine, subtle or precise,’ as in “a nice distinction.” Then it gently tumbled into ‘pleasant, kind,’ from the mid 18th century on.

So if a word can go through that impressive a range of meanings and connotations without bothering us, I suppose I can put my prescriptive stomping-shoe back in the closet. I’ll just hunt down a new word that I can use instead of literally going crazy. Isn’t that nice?

Welcome, and have a good balter!

I’m starting this blog to share my love of words and language with others, and there’s plenty to share. To me, language is not only a tool for communication, but an entire spectrum of complexity and beauty that allows us rich nuances, informs our culture, and can bring us closer together in tears or in laughter. The heart of a language lies in how it can express these ideas so clearly and well. Its grammar, its vocabulary, and its distinctive sound all play important roles and I feel that in exploring them, we can learn how to express ourselves even more clearly, and more spectacularly than ever before.

Most of Cor Lingua will be about English, but other languages are equally fascinating, so expect frequent guest appearances from around the world. Here you will find nifty little words that aren’t well known, common words often misused, news about linguistics and the history of language, funny stories, hilarious definitions, and tips on how to improve grammar and writing.

For the time being, it’s Monday, so I’ll keep it short, and if you haven’t baltered, you may wish to consider it. I’m going to curl up with a good book.

balter (v.): to dance artlessly, without particular grace or skill but usually with enjoyment.
‘There’s nothing quite like baltering to your favourite music at the end of a long day.’