Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Richard Lederer

 

As a former Usage Editor of a major dictionary, I am pleased to present a special usage column designed to whet your appetite — rather than wet your appetite. Great Expectorations! The spelling of the verb is indeed whet because the metaphor here compares the sharpening of a knife on a whetstone to the sharpening of one’s hunger.

I’ll bet that you’ve been waiting with baited breath for this information, like the cat that ate some cheese and then breathed into the mouse hole. Well, it’s actually bated breath, bated being a shortening of abated, meaning “diminished.”

May the lessons here strike a responsive cord in your mind. Oops, it’s strike a responsive chord. The figurative comparison here is musical. A chord is a set of tones, a cord just a piece of string. Read carefully, and you’ll get your just deserts, not your just desserts. Deserts are not pie, cake or pudding; deserts are what you justly deserve.

The above mistakes are misspellings. But many faulty phrases involve mispronunciations that mangle the sounds of the words when we speak them:                                                                                                                                                                                  

May today’s instruction manual nip your mistakes in the butt. Ack! I don’t mean to say that I’m biting your errors on the behind. Employing an agricultural metaphor, I intend to nip your mistakes in the bud before they can grow and fully flower.                                                                                                                                                                                    

So let’s hone in on confusables that so many folks — and you may be one of them — mispronounce. Sorry. That should be home in on. To hone means “to sharpen,” as “to hone a knife” or “to hone a skill.” To home in on means “to move closer to a target.”                                                                                                                                                             

For all intensive purposes you really shouldn’t take for granite any phrase. Actually, these pervasive expressions in their correct form are for all intents and purposes and take for granted. That way they make more sense, don’t they?

It’s a doggy dog world out there, so if you think that mispronouncing common expressions doesn’t matter, you’ve got another think coming. No way, Jose. The competitiveness of human life makes it a dog-eat-dog world, not a doggy dog world. And although another think coming makes a certain kind of sense, the accepted phrase is another thing coming.

Such boo-boos reek havoc on your language. That version also makes a certain sense, but the conventional form is to wreak havoc. Havoc means “chaos,” and wreak here means “to cause the infliction of.” The only creatures that can reek havoc are skunks.

When words collide, some competing versions come within a hare’s breath or hare’s breadth or hair’s breath or hair’s breadth of each other. The only correct way to write and sound this one is hair’s breadth, the thickness of single human hair. The expression has nothing to do with rabbits or breathing. I hope that jibes, not jives, with your understanding of the idiom.

Fall prey to these boo-boos and you’ll end up in dire straits, not dire straights. Master these distinctions, and they will serve you at your beckon call. Not quite. They will serve you at you beck and call, beck meaning “to gesture” and call meaning “to command orally.”

If you’ve read this far, you must be a real trouper, not trooper. The idea here is that a member of a theatrical troupe bravely endures performance after performance.

The last category of fractured phrases are those that lack logic. For example, I’m hoping that, as a result of my instruction, you’ll make a 360-degree turn in your verbal skills. In reality, that’s the last thing I want to happen because a 360-degree turn puts you right back where you started. I’m hoping to inspire you to make a 180-degree turn in your speaking and writing. That way you will be able to toe the line, like a runner at the starting line of a race, not tow the line, like a tugboat.

Some folks could care less about biting their mother tongue. But if they could care less, they must care to some extent. So don’t be careless with care less. Use couldn’t care less to indicate that you don’t care even a smidge.

Next week I’ll be performing at a number of libraries:10/15 – Valley Center Library 10-11 am, 10/16 – Rancho Bernardo Library 1-2:30 pm and 10/18 – Carlsbad Dove Library 6:30-7:30 pm. Free admission. I’d love to meet you at one of these events.