Grammar dalek and the pair tree

One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.

In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:

Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.

Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.

Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.

Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.

Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.

Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”

Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.

Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.

Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.

Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.

Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.

Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.

Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”

Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.

Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.

A Grammar Dalek gives thanks

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Grammar Dalek.

Yesterday, as conversation circled the table, and each of us spoke of one thing in our lives for which we were thankful, I gave thanks for a little book—The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. If I had great wealth, I would ensure that each high school student in the United States received a copy of this book, and I would send a free copy to every person who writes for a career or for a hobby.

The English language is fluid, capable of adapting to new information and new ways of self-expression. Some words or phrases appear, become faddish, and mercifully fade from use; others catch on and become part of our common language and culture. No one list of rules (especially one written during the last century) can encompass all that is good about communication in the English language. On the other hand, bad writing remains bad writing from generation to generation. Strunk and White excel in showcasing the mistakes that writers—including your friendly grammar dalek—sometimes make, as well as offering suggestions for improving one’s writing.

Which suggestions of Strunk and White condemn my repeated errors? Rule 15: “Put statements in positive form.” I am at times too enamored of the wordy negative rather than the concise positive sentence. Rule 16: “Use definite, specific, concrete language,” and Rule 17: “Omit needless words.” Much of my self-editing consists of finding better words and crossing out unneeded words. Rule 20: “Keep related words together.” In first drafts, my sentences are complex and wandering. When rewriting, I improve my organization and as a result become easier for others to understand.

Strunk and White mention a few misused words and expressions. They direct writers to remember the difference between “affect” and “effect,” between “less” and “fewer,” and between “like” and “as.” They also share a very helpful essay called “An Approach to Style.” Each writer has his or her own style, and one style is not better than another. Yet one’s writing style can be hindered by bad habits or by overexertion in verbiage. Following the rules and suggestions of Strunk and White would not cause all writers to sound the same, but it would cause all writers to sound better.

Slavish obedience to the rules of grammar hinders effective writing, but ignoring the rules of grammar prevents effective writing. Split infinites and prepositions at the end of sentences are almost always wrong (sorry Jim Kirk and Obi-wan Kenobi), and beginning sentences with conjunctions usually is unnecessary. When one applies the rules of grammar to one’s writing, the result generally is better than the first draft. Grammar daleks like me will always be needed to facilitate communication. We do not seek to exterminate bad writers; we seek to exterminate bad writing. J.

The grammar Dalek could care less

People approach me with the oddest requests, knowing that I am a grammar Dalek. “Grammar Dalek,” they say, “could you please use your influence to set straight the English-speaking world? For example, could you please tell people to stop saying they could care less when they really mean that they could not care less?”

At questions like this I chortle—and if you have never heard a Dalek chortle, you should be thankful; it is not a pleasant sound—and when I can stop chortling I tell them, “People, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the original expression is indeed, ‘I could care less.’ Moreover, the right and wrong of this expression were debated long before you were born, and the official decision says that you are wrong.”

The Second Intergalactic Dalek War was fought over this very expression. Daleks divided into two groups, each intensely convinced that they were right, and each determined to exterminate the Daleks who disagreed with them. The larger group of Daleks, known to Dalektic historians as the Literalists, fired the first shot. “If you could care less,” they said, “then obviously you care a little. Stop saying that you could care less if you mean that you do not care at all.”

The smaller group, called the Ironists, replied, “Actually, the expression ‘I could care less’ is shorthand for a longer expression. It really means, ‘I could care less, but the difference between how much I care now and caring not at all is so small that you could not possibly notice it, let alone measure it.’ That’s too many words to say in the midst of a conversation or an argument, so the idea is shortened to the much simpler form.”

The Literalists shot back, “But your shortened expression makes no sense. It says the opposite of what it means!”

To which the Ironists answered, “Obviously you have never encountered sarcasm before.”

The battle was fought for many centuries, and many Daleks gave their lives for their respective causes. In the end, the Ironists prevailed, and now the iron-clad expression is, as you can see, “I could care less.” From now on, when you scornfully want to tell someone how you feel about their opinion, you know exactly what to say. Say it right, or say it wrong; it doesn’t matter, and really, I could care less.