Dashing through the alphabet


Christmas 2017

Dashing to the end of the year, and what a year it’s been! You can see here on the work section of the site what’s been keeping me busy: among other things, I’ve edited reports about the Great Barrier Reef, tourism and bush foods in Australia, contract farming in Ethiopia and aquaculture in Kenya.

Apart from that, I convened a conference committee for Editors Queensland and IPEd for the 8th IPEd National Editors Conference. It was a wonderful experience, during which I worked with many talented people. If you’re an editor in Australia (or want to visit Australia!), make sure you come along to the next one: Melbourne, May 2019. If you’re a writer, know that editors love getting together and talking about the best ways of working with authors. We’re all in the business of making manuscripts sing.

Speaking of singing, to end the year I’ve dashed off this little Ode to the Alphabet (with apologies to ‘Jingle Bells’). Enjoy!

Checking carefully
In a research manuscript
For sense and clarity
Red pen loosely gripped
When suddenly I twitch
Something is not right
A quoted passage has a glitch
Whose is this oversight?

Oh, alphabet, alphabet
Order is the key
You let the reader find the source
By checking A, B, C
Alphabet, alphabet
You make it so easy
For anyone to find a name
In a bibliography.

I need to find out where
This quote has first appeared
Was this error there?
Or is it as I feared?
The author made a slip
Retyping this in haste
Instead of point and click to give
Verbatim copy and paste.

Oh, alphabet, alphabet
Thank goodness I can find
In 50 pages of references
That one particular line
That takes me to the source
Of the quote, and I’ll know quick
I’ll see if I should fix it up
Or merely add a [sic].

I’ve made it to the site
The original of the quote
The error’s there, all right
I have the antidote
I add a little [sic]
It’s just like poetry
How simply with the alphabet
Works your bibliography!

See you in 2018!


And a happening ear chew too






A bit of light-heartedness for the new year: We’ve all made the mistake at some point or other of using a word that sounds like but is not the one we mean, sometimes with hilarious results. Language learners make them often: I’ve made these errors in Dutch recently, using ‘verkopen’ instead of ‘kopen’, which resulted in me announcing to a smooth salesman that I’d like to sell a vacuum cleaner. I bet he was thinking, ‘We’ll see about that. I’ll be doing the selling around here.’ And then when returning a hotel keycard to the receptionist I tried to say, ‘We’ve forgotten your card’ but instead said ‘We’ve eaten your card’, mixing up ‘vergeten’ with ‘gegeten’. A recent example I’ve heard from a Dutch speaker learning English was when he wanted to express his appreciation to his host for the lovely dinner and time they’d had together, and he said, ‘Thank you for your hostility.’

At least language learners are likely to be corrected and not make the same mistake again; but when people make these mistakes in their first language, they usually don’t realise the error and so continue to make it. People send me examples of malapropisms they hear or say themselves, such as ‘one foul swoop’ for ‘one fell swoop’, ‘hotter than Haiti’ for ‘hotter than Hades’; ‘nip thinks in the butt’ for ‘nip things in the bud’; and even ‘erotic fish’ for ‘exotic fish’. The humour in the meow cop game relies on the butt of the joke thinking the cop is using malapropisms.

There are some great ones from the TV show Kath and Kim, including Kim’s plea, ‘I want to be effluent, Mum!’ and Kath’s judgement about what kind of kitchen table (or is it marriage?) Kim should have: ‘Oh no, Kim, monogamy’s very old fashioned. You just want a veneer of monogamy. That’s all people care about these days.’

George W Bush is famous for them, including this pearler: ‘We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.’ This example meets the criteria for a malapropism, which is that the word used by the speaker is a real word but not the one they meant to use, that it sounds like the word they meant, and that the result doesn’t make any sense. The title of this post is not strictly a malapropism in that you’re unlikely to hear anyone saying this as a genuine mistake. You can read here how the term malapropism comes from the character of Mrs Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals; she said things like ‘promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory’ and ‘He is the very pine-apple of politeness!’

As word meanings change, something that may have been a malapropism is no longer: for example, the word ‘fortuitous’ means ‘occurring by chance’, but because it sounds as if it’s related to ‘fortunate’, it has, since about the middle of last century, come to be used in the sense ‘occurring by good chance’. Because any fortuitous event can happen by good, bad or value-neutral chance, these two words do legitimately overlap in meaning at least some of the time. Fowler’s Modern Usage still prescribes the ‘chance’ meaning of ‘fortuitous’, but I think that battle to halt meaning shift is already lost.

Studies of malapropisms and other language errors can be used to find out how children develop language and which language centres of the brain have been damaged when people have strokes or accidents. That’s not to say that any instance of a malapropism constitutes brain damage – in a general setting people have just learned the wrong word from their social group, or misheard a phrase and repeated their mishearing.

This leads me to ask if speakers repeat these errors, even after they’ve been corrected. This article in Language Sciences by Arnold Zwicky from 1979 suggests they don’t, because they are convinced they already have the right word. A person will be looking through their mental dictionary for a word, but find the wrong one; when they utter that word, they accept it and store it as the correct item, so they continue to make the error. The fact that they couldn’t find the right word the first time means that the correct word was either stored incorrectly or incompletely. In Zwicky’s study, people were asked if they had intended to say what they had, and they were certain that they were right. That study was not longitudinal so it didn’t follow up to see if being corrected did change what people said. (I couldn’t find anything more current than this; not even recent abstracts behind paywalls seemed to answer this question exactly.)

I’ve heard people say often enough that so-and-so person always says such-and-such malapropism, so it seems as if it is a difficult thing to correct in a speaker’s mind. I once mixed up ‘superstitious’ and ‘suspicious’ and I’ve never trusted either of them since, always pausing now before I say one to make sure it’s right. If you know someone who has this kind of speech impeachment, be sure to collect them! They’ll thank you heavily for it.

More info:

Here’s a whole website devoted to them http://www.fun-with-words.com/malapropisms.html

Aman from pafnutyblog has managed to extract the wikipedia entry revision history and put a bigger list of malapropisms in one place here: http://pafnuty.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/the-lost-malapropisms-on-wikipedia/.

50 ways to love your editor

In the last few weeks I’ve read the three ‘Hunger Games’ books, and found myself experiencing something of what the author went through (on a much smaller scale) when she came up with the idea for it. Suzanne Collins was channel surfing between actual war coverage and reality TV that showed young people competing, and the lines began to blur in an ‘unsettling’ way.

So in my head, the recent inundation of critique about Fifty Shades of Grey became blurred with this lovely piece about 5 ways to get your editor to kill you, and with, of all things, a old favourite Paul Simon song, and this is what happened:

‘The story is all inside your head,’ she said to me,

‘We’ll work together so it comes out logically.

I’d like to help you in your struggle for your fee.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

She said, ‘It’s really just my habit to improve

the gem you wrote; this story will your readers move.

You could repeat yourself, accentuate the mood.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

Just slip in a comma, Donna,

Make a new para, Sarah,

You don’t need that apostrophe, Lee,

We’ll get your full fee.

Drop that full stop, Bob,

You don’t need to put the brakes on!

Be sure to tell the truth, Ruth,

And get your due fee.

She said, ‘Don’t worry – it just looks like disarray,

I know this piece is worth your time, don’t be dismayed

that we must edit when you thought it was okay.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

‘Now with those changes you should sleep on it tonight,

then in the morning read it back aloud, you’ll find

it will be clear to you, it only needed time.’

I have fifty reasons to love my editor.

Verb and subject agree, Lee,

Use consistent tense, Jen,

That word is a weasel, Liesel,

We’ll get your full fee.

Get the facts straight, Kate,

No need to elucidate!

You should show, don’t tell, Mel,

You’ll get that full fee.

Macaroons on National Grammar Day

Yesterday was National Grammar Day (in the US, at least), which has given rise to a mountain of competitions, activities, blogs, cartoons, tweets and other miscellaneous celebrations of the invisible web that holds language together. I blogged last week about the haiku competition; the winner was Larry Kunz, with this dangling modifier entry:

Being a dangler,
Jane knew it would have to come
out of the sentence

There were some gorgeous entries:

Send not to ask for
whom the bell tolls. It tolls for
who still uses whom.
dick margulis

Pedants must be told
What they can go and stick their
Prepositions up
Tom Freeman

First person: I love
Second person: You love me
Third person: Uh, oh.

and this one:

beware! so many
irregular verbs have crope
into the English language

This last one, with its belly-to-the-floor ‘crope’, reminded me of something else I saw this week: how the phrase ‘just deserts’ is spelt with one s in ‘deserts’, although it is pronounced as we usually pronounce the version with two s’s – ‘desserts’. I knew that the phrase means ‘to get what you deserve’, but I had always thought it was about ‘desserts’; as a child I must have stored this expression and the expression ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’ into the area of my brain reserved for ‘idioms about food’, subsection ‘punitive’. It made perfect sense to me that they belonged together, and that control over a person’s access to sugar was control indeed.

It turns out that ‘just deserts’ is from the French ‘deserver’ and is therefore related to what we deserve. But because we don’t use that form of deserve anymore, the misspelling ‘just desserts’ is very common; a quick search reveals about 5.5 million hits for ‘just desserts’ and only 618,000 for the correct spelling of ‘just deserts’.

Crosswords, like idioms, can be another avenue of preserving words that would otherwise have long fallen into disuse. Examples I’m familiar with include ‘alarum’ as the solution to ‘alarm (arch.)’ (that clue does seem as if the compiler had to scurry off to submit the crossword to the paper’s editor by the evening post, so old-fashioned and stop-gappish is it); ‘ogee’ as the solution to ‘an s-shaped moulding’ and ‘sere’ as the solution to ‘bone dry’.

All this shows is that language is infinitely changing, which is one of the great celebrations of National Grammar Day. Contrary to the view that the day would cause a great smirk of self-satisfaction on the smug mugs of pedants everywhere, it brings out people who can explain why ‘however’ can be used at the beginning of a sentence and why prepositions can be used at the end of a sentence. It attracts people whose interest is language: how it is used as much as how it should be used, and how to improve communication between people so as to avoid this.

Haiku – do you?

An editor is someone who cares about language and about expression, particularly about subtlety and economy of expression, which can seem to be mutually exclusive categories. I was once describing for someone, in long flowing sentences, how much I loved the power of language to inform and to persuade, to build connections and relationships between people, even, in the case of written language, across space and time. He listened patiently, and then said, ‘I find words a rather coarse medium myself,’ thereby demonstrating modesty and mastery of language in one fell swoop.

Poetry is a sharp tool for carving out an exact idea with subtlety and economy, and one form I’ve been reading about recently is haiku. I’ve dabbled in this form while standing in queues (which gave rise to the unimaginative:

An excuse to stop
And practise meditation
While standing in line)

and have had the pleasure recently of listening to Ross Clark talk about being a poet and editing poets’ work. Ross presented to the Queensland Society of Editors’ meeting in February and his description of haiku, which among other things made me realise that my example above is not a good haiku at all, prompted me to read some more about it. I discovered that what I learned in high school about haiku needing to be three lines with the pattern 5, 7 then 5 syllables long was incorrect, and that they usually include a season word and are comparing two visual images for effect. Here’s one from Frogpond, the Journal of the Haiku Society of America:

pinwheeling leaves
thirty-five years end
with the word amicable

Dave Baldwin, Lake Stevens, Washington

So, imagine how pleased I am to see the collision of all that I love about language with my new interest in haiku. National Grammar Day is this Sunday, and it comes complete with a Tweeted Haiku Contest. Last year’s winner was about spelling:

Spell-checkers won’t catch
you’re mistaken homophones
scattered hear and their


Everyone ready?

The lighter side

Who said grammar, spelling and punctuation weren’t funny? Here are some of my favourites, beginning with my favourite Christmas joke:

What do you call Santa’s little helpers?

Subordinate clauses.

What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws and one is a pause at the end of a clause.

Shakespeare walks in to a bar.

The bartender says, ‘You’re bard.’

Here are a few other sites for grammar goodies:

Grammar humour

Tips to improve your writing

Graham Rawle’s Lost Consonants

The Oatmeal: Grammar

Boggleton Drive

Grammar Girl

The OWL at Purdue