Saturday, November 28, 2009

Handful of Homonyms


Friday, November 13, 2009

Hopefully, Helen

When I was in my twenties, I worked for a couple of years as a copy editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company in Boston. One of my co-workers was Helen Phillips. She was quite a bit older and has probably passed away by now. Then again, I shouldn't jump to that conclusion. Helen was such a staunch New Englander--ramrod-straight posture, strong convictions, healthy living habits--that she could very well still be around. I hope so!

Helen was the copy editor for the Roger Tory Peterson field guides to the birds, a very prestigious series, and she also worked on the Jane Goodall books. She was good at what she did. One thing I have never forgotten is her stand on the adverb "hopefully." She was adamantly opposed to its usage as a sentence modifier, as in, "Hopefully, I will win the lottery." "No, no, no!" she would tell us. The only correct usage of that adverb is in direct relationship to a verb, adjective or adverb, as in this example: "I went hopefully to the counter and bought a lottery ticket."

And Helen's argument is backed up by my American Heritage Dictionary, which says that only 44 percent of its usage panel calls the usage of the adverb in the first sentence acceptable.

Of course, my dictionary is about 40 years old, so the current panel may have different ideas. Also, I learned from the linguistics courses I took after I left Boston, grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive; it describes what people say, not what they should say.

But still, it's been very hard for me to break out from under Helen's wing. For the past several decades, I have religiously stopped myself every time I was about to start a sentence with "hopefully," remembering Helen's strong words and her imposing appearance. I have made myself recast my sentences time after time, out of respect for her.

Lately though, something has happened, and I've become rebellious. I have, on occasion, allowed myself to use "hopefully" as a sentence adverb. Call me lazy; it just seems that sometimes there is no other way.

Hopefully, Helen, you will forgive me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Do you know how to pronounce this word? Most people don't. They put the accent on the second syllable, the quis. That's wrong. The word is pronounced exquisite, with the accent on the first syllable, the ex.

I know this because one day, when I was a freshman at the Convent of the Sacred Heart high school for girls, now Woodlands Academy, in Lake Forest, Illinois, my English teacher, Mother Barsch (our nuns were called Mother, not Sister) went down the rows of the classroom and had everyone pronounce this word correctly.

It was a pet peeve of hers, I guess. And she did the same thing with the word "didn't," because some people pronounced it "dint," and that just about pushed her over the edge.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


You have heard that Americans are very informal, and this is true. And you have learned some American idioms and slang, which you are proud to use. That's great, in some situations--with friends, online, etc.

But one thing you may not realize is that even American English has its levels of usage. And when you are writing an essay, your language should be more formal than when you are writing an email or, definitely, when you are texting.

I am writing this because recently I have had the opportunity to read a number of papers written by international students. In several of these, the word "stuff" was used. Let me be clear: It sticks out like a sore thumb. Think of a more specific word than "stuff" for the items you are referring to. "Stuff" is definitely not appropriate in formal English. It's a red flag, signalling a writer who doesn't know the rules.

Even "things," although not a sophisticated word, is better than "stuff." "Stuff" is a very commonly used word, but it does nothing to enhance your reputation as an accomplished writer of English.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tongue Twitters

A friend came across the word "bristle," as a verb: to bristle, to become angry, afraid, or indignant. He had never heard of that usage, and thought it was funny. It comes from the noun bristle, meaning a short, stiff hair or hairlike object. When people or animals become afraid, the hair on their necks sometimes becomes stiff, like a bristle. (The hog bristled with fear. He bristled up in anger.) I like the word. And it made me wonder about the word brush, since a brush has bristles. Brush can also be a noun or verb, and it has various meanings. It's something to use to clean hair or teeth, shoes or floors. And it's the action of cleaning with those. There are also some idioms: "brush up on" means to review; I need to brush up on my French before I go to Quebec. "Brush aside" or "brush off" means to dismiss abruptly: He brushed off their criticisms and continued on. You can "brush against" something, touching it lightly as you pass. Any more?

Another word of interest to me is "drunk." It's the past participle of drink. But of course, it's also an adjective meaning "intoxicated," and a noun, meaning a person who is habitually and disgracefully in that state. In recent years, I've noticed people using "drank" as the past participle: I've drank a lot of beer in my life. I'd drank a few glasses of wine when I got in the car. I think people have started avoided using the correct past participle because of the possibility of making themselves or their friends sound like derelicts. If they say, for example, "He's fine, officer; he's only drunk one beer," it's just too possible that the policeman will only hear the first few words. It's too close for comfort. Any opinions on this?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

triple homonym

idol, idle, idyll

Thursday, January 29, 2009


I should have posted this a while ago, but I didn't think of it until I received an email asking for TOEFL tutoring. I had to say no; I'm not doing TOEFL tutoring now.