Aunt Ruth’s Common Grammar Problems

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Sep 272016

Hey y’all,

Don’t forget that you can access Aunt Ruth’s Common Grammar Problems for all (well, some) of your grammatical and word usage questions!

The list will soon be expanding, as well. I have made significant progress on the next Aunt Ruth book with another 40+ stories to whet your grammatical appetite. Look for it in Spring 2017!

The Absolute Ruth

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Sep 272016

“Most of his attempts usually succeeded.”

I read this sentence in a well-respected newspaper this morning. What does it mean?

If most means, say, 51% or more, and if usually also means 51% or more, then the sentence is saying that 51% of his attempts succeed, 51% of the time.

If you’ve studied any statistics / probability at all, you know that this is equivalent to saying that his attempts succeed 26.01% (or more)  of the time. (0.51 multiplied by 0.51 is 0.2601).

“Most of his attempts usually succeeded” sounds a whole lot stronger than “His attempts succeeded more than 26% of the time.” Right?

Even if we ramped up the definitions of most and usually to mean 70% and 70%, respectively, we still end up being able to say that his attempts succeeded more than 49% of the time.

Most and usually are both considered to be absolutes. The writer (or speaker) has to be very careful when using absolutes. If I walk out of Kroger thinking, “Man, most of the stuff in this store is overpriced,” but I base that only on the 4 or 5 items I purchased, then my use of the word most is highly inappropriate.

I watched the presidential debates last night on television. Both candidates were freely using absolutes … “most people want” … “I never would” … “we always should” … and phrases like that. I wondered how much research (or thought) had gone into backing those statements.

Others absolutes include words like: always, every, all, never, none, often, and more. (I don’t mean more in the .etc sense, but in the more is one of those words, too sense.)

The problem (if there is a problem) here is that most and usually are both used in the same sentence.

Wouldn’t the sentence mean the same thing if I said:

Most of his attempts succeeded.


His attempts usually succeeded.

Saying that most of his attempts usually succeeded kind of clouds the intent (I think), unless the writer intentionally tried to mislead. That (trying to mislead) was not the intent of the writer (at least, based on the tenor of the article).

It becomes more obvious (does it really?) that something is askew when we say:

All of his attempts usually succeeded. Maybe this does make sense. All of his attempts—that is, every time he tried to do whatever it was he was trying to accomplish—more often than not, he was successful.

All of his attempts never succeeded. If we can associate never succeeded with failed, then this is pretty cut-and-dried. All of his attempts failed.

Most of his attempts always succeeded. Similarly, if always succeeded is associated with passed, then it’s easy to see that most of his attempts passed.

None of his attempts usually succeeded. At first glance, I was tempted to say that this means the same as none of the attempts succeeded. But, does it mean that? Even if none of the attempts usually succeeded, could there be attempts that occasionally succeeded?

None of his attempts always succeeded. Again, are there attempts that sometimes succeeded, even if none always succeeded?

That begs the question: What does attempt mean in this context?

Let’s try an exercise (I’m doing this with you … I haven’t planned this out in advance).

Suppose Hank Aaron is our subject for this endeavor. Hank had a lifetime batting average of .305. Yes, he was a great, solid hitter. (And he’s still the all-time home run leader, in my book.)

Now, suppose we could look back at statistics for Hank’s individual at-bats and the types of pitches he faced. And suppose that his success rate (where success is defined as getting a base hit) is as follows:

Fastball: 42%

Curveball: 27%

Screwball: 16%

Knuckleball: 22%

(These are just arbitrary numbers … I have no idea what they actually would be. We also don’t know how many of each of these pitches he saw, nor do we know what other pitches there were. I don’t know if slider falls into the curveball category; I don’t know if a split-finger fastball falls into the fastball category, etc.)

Here we have four different classes of attempts, each class having its own success rate. What are some things we could say about these attempts and success rates, if by attempt we mean class of attempt?

None of the four attempts was always successful.

None of the four attempts was usually successful (if usually means > 50%).

All of the four attempts were sometimes (or occasionally) successful.

We could even say that most of the attempts were occasionally successful, where most can include every attempt.

Okay, this feels like a bit of a dead end.

Go back to semantics. When we say that an attempt is usually or sometimes successful, that seems to indicate that an attempt may sometimes be successful and sometimes not.

THAT’s the problem.

Let’s go back to the original problem, way at the very top of this article.

Look at it like this: Most of his attempts succeeded. We’re looking at a body of attempts – each individual attempt either wins or loses – and most of those attempts end in success.

Now, look at it like this: His attempts usually succeeded. Again, each individual attempt either wins or loses. His attempts usually won.

But saying “Most of his attempts usually succeeded” either means that there are classes or groupings of attempts, each with its own success rate, or that it’s acceptable to say that if more than 25% of his attempts succeeded, we can say that most of his attempts usually succeeded.

Be careful of those absolutes!

Contrary to current social thinking, there ARE absolutes. And there are truths. And there is Ruth.


Aunt Ruth and the Peach Cobbler’s Kitten

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Sep 192016

It’s mine!” shouted Aunt Ruth. “Give it back to me at once, my nemesis nephew. Or else!”

“You’re being too possessive, my dear Aunt Ruth,” I said as I set down the now-empty plate of what had been a delicious serving of Aunt Ruth’s peach cobbler. “Besides, you are distracting me from being able to concentrate on this fascinating topic of possessives with appositives.”

I tried hard to ignore Aunt Ruth’s occasional tantrums—not an easy task, certainly, but occasionally it worked—and this morning I had been in deep thought about some of the odd (and correct) possessive statements I have witnessed through the years.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), Aunt Ruth’s new pet kitten had taken a liking to me, and it was now sound asleep on the floor at my feet.

Anyway, back to odd possessives. The most bizarre possessive statements that I’ve seen involve appositives.
Appositives, you may recall, are noun phrases that are used to clarify or further describe the noun immediately preceding it in the sentence. For example, look at the sentence:

Marjorie, the lady who sat next to us in church this morning, has a dog and two cats.

In that sentence, Marjorie is the subject, and the lady who sat next to us in church this morning is the appositive. The appositive is a description or identification of Marjorie.

Now, suppose I accidentally sat on Marjorie’s hat. Suppose, also, that I am not sure if you remember who Marjorie is. For clarification, then, I want to include the appositive when I tell you about sitting on Marjorie’s hat.
The rule for creating a possessive with a statement that has an appositive is NOT to put the apostrophe on the subject, but put the apostrophe at the end of the appositive (i.e., add apostrophe -s to the last word of the appositive, and then remove the comma that normally immediately follows the appositive). So, that would look like this:

I sat on Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us in church this morning’s hat.

Note a couple of things. In the phrase before the appositive, it indeed says I sat on Marjorie. However, I did not sit on Marjorie. I sat on her hat. The second thing to notice is that the apostrophe -s is attached to morning, as in … this morning’s hat. And the comma after morning has been removed.

Weird? Certainly. And I must confess that the grammar books that discuss this also say that in such cases, the writer should seriously consider restructuring the sentence for clarity, e.g.,

I sat on Marjorie’s hat; she was the lady sitting next to us in church this morning.
Or … I sat on the hat of Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us in church this morning.

That works, certainly, though the hat of Marjorie sounds a little stuffy, kind of like the title of a murder mystery, perhaps.

“Tonight, on ‘Hitchcock Presents,’ we will watch The Hat of Marjorie.” That sounds sinister, indeed.
One can contrive scenarios that produce word combinations that are visually funny.

I was bitten by Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us at the concert’s dog.

Of course, I was not bitten by Marjorie but by her dog. The dog was probably upset with me for sitting on (and undoubtedly ruining) Marjorie’s hat.

I vacuumed up Marjorie, the lady who always went to the park with her husband’s ashes.

I did not actually vacuum up Marjorie; and Marjorie did not go to the park every day with her husband’s ashes. She simply went to the park every day with her husband. I did vacuum up Marjorie’s ashes, but we don’t know from whence those ashes came. Maybe Marjorie is a chronic chain-smoker. As far as we know, her husband is still alive and has not (yet) been reduced to ashes. The possessive statement leaves a lot of wiggle-room for ambiguity.

“I sat on Marjorie, the lady sitting next to me’s hat.”

This is similar to the first example, but I like the me’s hat combination. It just sounds so wrong.

“I ate a bowl of Marjorie, the next-door neighbor who liked to go to Africa to hunt elephants’ soup.”

I ate a a bowl of Marjorie? I’m not even sure what that means. She does go to Africa to hunt elephants (I am not condoning that, by the way …this is just an example. So back off, will ya?) She does not go to hunt elephants’ soup, though that could be an interesting hobby. Tusk, tusk. Note, also, that in this case we merely added the apostrophe to elephants; we did not add the “s” because the word already ended in “s” (and elephants’s just doesn’t sound right).

“We must get Steve Berry, the attorney handling the case of the missing elephant’s signature.”

This seems to indicate that the elephant’s signature is missing. I can see why we might be concerned.
Now, suppose Steve Berry has a piano, and suppose that I went over to his house to play his piano. I could say this:

I played Steve Berry, the attorney handling the case of the missing elephants’ piano.

I did not play Steve Berry. He is a fine actor and can play his own part quite well. He’s still handling the case of the missing elephants, not the elephants’ piano. It’s interesting to consider, though, that multiple elephants would have only one piano. I can’t imagine two elephants playing a one-piano duet. That could be awkward.

“What are you saying, notorious nephew?” asked Aunt Ruth, yawning as she slowly awoke. “Are you violating our grammatical agreement to not stretch ‘out there’ into the strange world of intentional weirdness and ambiguous writing?”

I acknowledged but tried not to focus on Ruth, the aunt who likes to take me out to eat’s warts.

“What did you say? Eat’s warts?”

“Uh, never mind.”

I am wearing Marjorie, the neighbor who has llamas’ argyle socks.

“Marjorie’s llamas wear argyle socks?” gasped Aunt Ruth. “Really?”

In my rush to pack up and get out of here at the end of the story, I accidentally stepped on Aunt Ruth, my relative who makes the best peach cobbler’s kitten.

I’m Not Lying. I’m Sitting.

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Oct 062015

What is it about the word lying that makes people so afraid to use it? At least three times this past week I have heard laying (the present participle of lay) used where, instead, lying (the present participle of lie) should have been used.

I was laying in bed this morning thinking about the news.

No you weren’t, unless you were a chicken trying to lay an egg.

You were lying in bed this morning thinking about the news. Yes, you were (and good for you … there is a lot of news to think about these days).

People get uncomfortable thinking about lying, as they should. It’s not good to not tell the truth.

People apparently also get uncomfortable thinking about being in a horizontal position that might be construed as lying.

Hmm, there may be a joke in here somewhere … Why did the politician sleep upright in his chair instead of in a bed? Otherwise, he would be accused of lying.

Anyway, yes it’s true, the present participle of lie is lying.

I need to lie down.

Last night I lay down.

Dad lies in bed, waiting for you to bring him his morning coffee.

I am lying in bed, thinking about writing a blog post this morning.

I’m not lying.


Dem Cows, Dey Behooved

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Sep 272015

Maybe there’s something in the water … or maybe there’s something in the air (besides a song, or besides autumn (oh, happy autumn, by the way … only a few days late)).

Twice in the past week I have heard the word behoove used incorrectly. In both cases, the incorrect usage was as a verb meaning befuddled, as in “It behooves me why the grocery store would stop selling its most popular prune juice.”

Behooved is not befuddled. Behooved is not confused, curious, or wondering.

Behooved is also not a description of the podiatric state of bovine and equestrian animals, as in “Dem cows, dey behooved.”

Merriam-Webster has this to say about the verb behoove:  transitive verb. : to be necessary, proper, or advantageous for.   intransitive verb. : to be necessary, fit, or proper.

An example: It behooves us to study the writings of the American forefathers to understand their views of government.

I don’t think I realized that behoove also has an intransitive state. I looked up some examples and it goes like this:

Tenacity is a quality that behooves in an athlete.

Several sources claim the intransitive usage is archaic. [ Incidentally, that means that you can’t use the intransitive while you are modifying your writing … after all, you know the adage, “You can’t have archaic and edit too.” (Sorry, I’m tired. If you need me to explain the adage to you, write me.) ]

Anyway, just remember … it behooves all of us to pay attention to our vocabulary!


If I Were, If I Was

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Sep 252015

Let’s talk about using the subjunctive. After all, if they aren’t teaching it in school (unless you take foreign language), and if I fail to describe it a bit here, then I have no business ranting about its decline.

First of all, note this: in English, the verb forms for the subjunctive are the same as for the indicative, except for first person and third person singular. That means that much of the time it won’t matter whether you realize you’re in subjunctive or not because you’ll just happen to get it right anyway.

But … what about first person and third person singular? Let’s look at first person first.

First Person

The most common way to get into a subjunctive mood (or mode) is with an If statement that is either false, probably false, or hypothetical.

Suppose I did not go to the game yesterday, and suppose I went to the grocery store instead. At the grocery store, I knocked over the pile of pumpkins. Thus, I could say:

If I were at the game yesterday, I wouldn’t have knocked over the pumpkins.

Now suppose that I did go to the game two weeks ago. I wore my blue sweater at the game (the air was chilly). Someone comes up to me the next day and says, “Hey, I saw you at the game last night. You were wearing a green sweater.”

I could say, “You must be thinking of someone else. If I was at the game, I’d be wearing my blue sweater.”

Indeed, I was at the game, so the conditional is true.

Third Person

Replace the “I” in the previous examples with “Aunt Ruth.”

If Aunt Ruth were at the game, she wouldn’t have knocked over the pumpkins. (She wasn’t at the game; she went grocery shopping instead.)

If Aunt Ruth was at the game, she’d be wearing her blue sweater. (In this example, Aunt Ruth did go to the game in question.)

There are other cases and examples to talk about, and we’ll discuss it further in the near future. Until then …



Dixie and the Decline of the Subjunctive

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Sep 242015

You know how you’ll just be sitting there and suddenly you realize a song is going through your head? And, in fact, sometimes when that happens you realize that the song has been going through your head for a long time (as in days)?

Well, that happened to me earlier this week. I was driving down the road, thinking about all the things going on. I had to stop at the grocery store; I had to pick up my son from piano lessons; I had to stop at the post office; I had to stop at Target to pick up some COTTON tee-shirts; etc. Then, out of the blue, it hit me. I think it was the word “cotton” that tipped me off. I was playing the song “Dixie” in my mind, over and over again.

It’s such a catchy tune. Even Abe Lincoln said that.

“Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton …”

Hold on just a minute (I guess I should say one cotton-picking minute). Where is the subjunctive? The song should be “Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton …”

It set me to wondering.

So, I’ve always been interested in history and politics. There was a stretch of time (like, the 1970s) when I was convinced that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. Department of Education and, in an effort to destroy American productivity and to produce a generation of children barely capable of tying their own shoes, prescribed a megaton of busy-work, labeled as homework. By spending hours and hours on meaningless homework, we would be prevented from having time to spend on real things.

Of course, that probably wasn’t the case. Even if it were, I spent my spare time watching television.

Anyway, long story short, I now wonder if the Confederate States of America developed / promoted this song (Dixie) so that we all would lose our sensitivity to the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive (which lends itself to wishes, hypothetical questions, and important / recommended / insisted upon matters) mood as a literary device is another dial on your English language control panel. It’s like the equalizer on your stereo console.

We had an old Harmon Kardon amp when I was a kid. Actually, it belonged to my Uncle Steve or Uncle Tom, but they left it at my grandma’s house where we lived. Anyway, the amp had one dial called Ambiance. I would play my record albums and fiddle with the Ambiance dial, but I could never distinguish a difference in sound. It either didn’t work, or my Aerosmith and Foghat albums didn’t have any ambiance to begin with — not sure which.

In today’s culture, the subjunctive button is still there but it’s getting little use.

Would that that were not so.

There Are Octopi in the Sarcophagi

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Sep 142011


The thud rattled my apartment, causing two pots – each containing a cactus – to fall from the counter and shatter on the floor.

I dashed to the window and looked, expecting to see a meteorite in place of where Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s home had once been. Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s home was still there, and, in fact, Mrs. Thigglethorpe was on the front lawn with her pet hippopotamus. There were no signs of a natural disaster outside.

“Excuse me,” said a voice behind me.

“Ay!” I screamed, startled. I whipped around only to find Bill the Grammar Consultant lying in a heap on the floor.

“Calm down, calm down, it was I who crashed,” said Bill.

I did calm down. “Bill, what are you doing here?”

“You got any pastrami?”

“Uh, no.”



“A thick, tangy pimento cheese spread, and a nice loaf of pumpernickel?”

“Yep. The pumpernickel came out of the oven just an hour ago, and a container of pimento cheese spread is on the bottom shelf in the fridge, next to an unidentified container that I’m afraid to open.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Bill. “Thanks. I’ll be right back. Oh, and sorry about the cacti.”


“Cacti – the plural of cactus.”

“It’s not cactuses?”

“Well, actually, both are used. In Arizona, they just use the word ‘cactus’ to be both singular and plural. Using ‘i’ for plurals is common with words pulled into English (or Anglicized) from the Latin.”

“Okay, then. Let me go clean up the cacti mess.”

“Cool. See ya,” remarked Bill as he darted into the kitchen and out of sight.

I began whistling that old favorite tune about whistling while you work. “I love having Bill around,” I thought to myself. “He adds such clarity to my grammar life.” I quickly put the pieces of cactus onto a tray and set it on the dining chair that was near the window, just to get it out of the way so that I could sweep the dirt and broken chards of pottery. In a moment, I had the floor as clean as a whistle.

As I turned to remove the cacti from the chair, I heard Bill’s voice call out, “You got any mustard?”

“Uh, no. Sorry,” I apologized.

The doorbell rang. I stood there for a second, debating whether to remove the cacti from the chair or open the door.

Bill stepped out of the kitchen. “Nauseating nephew?” he asked.


“The doorbell rang. Shouldn’t you answer it?”

“Uh, yes. Good idea,” I said, moving toward the door.

“I’ll just, uh, you know, go finish the pimento cheese spread. You weren’t going to use that tonight for anything, were you?”

“Uh, no,” I answered. Bill darted back into the kitchen.

“Come in, come in, dear birthday aunt,” I said, opening the door and motioning for her to enter.

She smiled. “Why, thank you.”

“Now, let’s get down to business. Food is ready,” I said, gleaming with pride. With a flourish, I lit the candles on the table. After all, I wanted this to be a nice birthday dinner for Aunt Ruth.

“Food is ready? Oh my, you’re so efficient. May I sit down?”

“Yes, please do,” I said.

She plopped into the chair next to the window before I could stop her. For a moment, her eyes were as big as saucers and her cheeks turned beet read, and then she let out a scream and exploded off the chair, knocking over my table along with the flaming candles. Her dress instantly caught fire.

“Water! Water!” I yelled, not quite sure to whom but hoping somebody would hear.

Bill ran into the room with a pitcher of water and instantly poured it on Aunt Ruth, drenching her. Wisps of smoke curled from her head and dissipated into the room.

“Hi Bill,” sighed Aunt Ruth, “and thanks. I’m glad you were here!”

“Oh, you know me. I was just minding my own business quietly in the kitchen, but then I heard the call for water and I smelled the acrid odor of burnt underwear. I figured something was awry. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me for anything.”

Aunt Ruth and I sat down and commenced eating.

“Mmmm, this is delicious, darling nephew,” remarked Aunt Ruth as she swallowed the first bite of my new culinary creation. “What did you say this was called?”

“I’m glad you like it, Aunt Ruth. This is my Jules Verne Special.”

“What’s in it, if I may ask?”

“The key ingredient is octopus,” I said rather nonchalantly.

Aunt Ruth turned all the colors of the rainbow in less than a second, going from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to indigo to violet faster than you can say, “Roy G. Biv.”

She began coughing violently. “Quick!” she gasped, “get me (cough) some (cough cough) water!”

“Water!” I yelled, feeling a sudden sense of deja vous.

Bill ran back into the room carrying another pitcher of water, and before I could stop him he poured it on Aunt Ruth, drenching her for the second time in less than five minutes. I’m not sure how it worked, but it did stop Aunt Ruth from coughing.

Dripping, Aunt Ruth sat there and stared at the large tray that I had used to serve the Jules Verne Special. “How many, may I ask, octopuses did you use for this recipe?”

“Hold it right there,” said Bill.

“Don’t tell me that octopuses isn’t the right word,” muttered Aunt Ruth.

“Okay, I won’t tell you that,” said Bill. There was a large pause.

“Well, is it or isn’t it?” sighed a flustered Aunt Ruth.

“It can be either octopuses or octopi,” said Bill quietly.

“How can it be either?”

“It has to do with its Latin roots and whether it’s a second declension or fourth declension noun.”

“A what?”

“Never mind. Just know that we have a lot of unusual plural nouns in English and it behooves us to learn them.”

At that moment, I heard the roar of animals outside my window. A quick investigation revealed that Mr. Ledbottom had brought his pet hippopotamus over to play with Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s pet hippopotamus.

“What’s the noise?” asked Aunt Ruth.

“Just a pair of hippopotamuses out on the grass.”

“That’s hippopotami,” said Bill, “just as it’s rhinoceri.”

“Rhinoceri?” I asked. “That sounds like a room where a baby rhinocerous might live.”

“Listen,” said Bill, “if you’re going to use a noun, you’ve got to know the plural for that noun. That’s called Plurality Responsibility, or Pluronsibility.”

“Is it really?” I asked.

“No, not really,” responded Bill. “I do like that word though.”

“Well,” sniffed Aunt Ruth with an air of superiority, “I think we should continue to keep our focuses on real words, not pretend words.”

“Focii,” corrected Bill.

“Beg your (cough) pardon?” said Aunt Ruth.

“You’re still coughing, Aunt Ruth,” I said.

“Tell me about it. I think some of the octopuses – octopi, excuse me – accidentally went down my sarcophagus.”

“That’s esophagus,” said Bill with a smile.

“Oh yeah, that’s right. I had forgotten that word. I should remember esophagus. It’ll come in handy some day. Mommy said you never know when we might need to talk about esophaguses.”

“Esophagi,” said Bill.

“No way,” said Aunt Ruth.

“Yes way,” he responded. “And just in case you’re wondering, it’s sarcophagi.”

“Mommy never told me about sarcophagi.”

“No,” said Bill, “but I’ll bet your mummy did.”

On Homonyms, Antonyms, and Cinnamons, but mostly Homophones

 grammar  Comments Off on On Homonyms, Antonyms, and Cinnamons, but mostly Homophones
May 272011

I was recently sitting in the mountains on a bridge. No, the mountains were not on the bridge. I guess I was sitting on a bridge in the mountains. Or was I standing? Anyway, I was there on the bridge, and I was thinking deep thoughts. I might have been replaying the Johnny Rodgers punt return that he had in Nebraska’s win over Oklahoma in 1971 (still, in my opinion, the greatest game ever played). Or maybe I was trying to remember if I had had my coffee that morning.

Then, out of the blue, the question was asked me by a good friend who was also sitting or standing on the bridge, “What’s the difference between a homonym and a homophone?”

With the gentle wisdom that I’ve learned in my half-century of life here on this great planet, I answered with the confidence of a man who has heard it all. “It depends,” I responded. There was a pause, and I realized that my friend was waiting for the complete answer. So I decided to continue.

“It depends on what a homophone is,” I triumphantly stated, nodding wisely.

Okay, it’s time to get to the point. Somewhere in my elementary education I was either:

  • A) misinformed
  • B) not paying attention
  • C) victim of a government plot by Communists somewhere to lead all American children astray in an attempt to hinder national productivity and intelligence

I suspect it was (C) but I cannot prove it. C, incidentally, is also responsible for Sesame Street, video games, and text messaging.

I did some research and here’s what I determined.

First, my concept of what constitutes a homonym was all wrong. I have spent the first fifty years of my life believing that homonyms are any words that sound alike. They DO sound alike, that is true. But that’s not the end of the story.

Homophones are words that sound alike. Two, to, and too are homophones.

Homographs are words that are written alike. Lead (to be in front) and lead (the metal used to make fishing weights) are homographs.

Homonyms are words that are homophones AND homographs.

In other words, all homonyms are homophones, but not all  homophones are homonyms. All chihuahuas are dogs, but not all dogs are chihuahuas. So … a chihuahua is a metaphor for a homonym.

Stalk and stalk — the former being the base of a corn plant and the latter being the action of following somebody (or is it the other way around, and how do you know?) — are examples of homonyms.

Wow, talk about having your world turned upside down. This is akin to thinking for years that it was Neil Armstrong who first set foot on the moon, only to find (when you’re 50) that it was really Jimi Hendrix.

Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Not that I’m paranoid, but what other facts out there have I gotten wrong all my life? It makes one wonder …

The Art of the Christmas Letter

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Dec 212010

MC: Good evening, folks, and welcome to the annual rendition — what is quickly becoming the Wizard of Oz in the literary grammar world (well, okay, if not the Wizard of Oz, maybe this is the annual equivalent of Gus’s Hot Dogs’ Groundhog Day Celebration) — of the Art of the Christmas Letter, or to put it more succinctly, Can You Top My List of Ailments? We have with us that icon of grammatical icons, Aunt Ruth. Twinkling in the dark skies above, Aunt Ruth is even more sparkling tonight than those heavenly stars. We welcome you, Aunt Ruth.

AR: Thanks, MC. You’re dangling your participles again. How embarrassing this is.

MC: (suddenly mortified) I’m … what?

AR: I am not twinkling in the dark skies above. The stars are twinkling.

MC: Ah, I see the confusion. Would it have been better if I had mentioned something about chihuahuas?

AR: No, please. The chihuahua thing is getting old. Now, your gaffe is common in Christmas letters. Dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and the like are becoming all too commonplace.

MC: Why do you suppose that is?

AR: Well, it may have something to do with people getting out of practice writing. I mean, really, how many letters — physical, stamped, pieces of correspondence that arrive in a mailbox or through your door slot to a real live mailing address — do you receive any more, other than bills and advertisements?

MC: Nada.

AR: Exactly. Now, it is not my intent to discourage Christmas letter writers from penning notes to family and friends. The world needs more of this sort of thing. The last thing I want is for someone to text me, “HAVE A GR8 XMAS.” There are a couple things you need to keep in mind, though, when writing those letters.

MC: And they are …

AR: I’m glad you asked. First, watch those misplaced modifiers. Here are examples of things to avoid.

Covered with red, blue, and silver ornaments, and adorned in hundreds of lights blinking in rhythm to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Oscar set up the Christmas tree last weekend.

Plumper than last year, Edna promises this year’s Christmas goose will be something to behold.

Coming out shortly after our baby was born, Ronald exclaimed, “It’s the placenta!”

With a little better resolution and less blurriness than last year, Michael is fired up about this year’s edition of Madden football.

Deluging the kids and pelting them with frozen stuff, Harris watched from the window as the kids braved the season’s first ice storm.

Barking all night long, James is hoping that the dogs will learn to quiet down over time.

Sagging from age and significant excess weight, Aunt Ruth was concerned about all the snow on her porch roof.

Make sure that the thing you are describing matches the description. I am not sagging from age and significant excess weight … well maybe I am, but I’m not concerned about it. My porch roof is sagging from age and significant excess weight.

MC: Okay, point well taken. What’s the other thing?

AR: Avoid getting too graphic. It’s one thing to say in a Christmas letter, “We had a baby,” and it’s something else to describe the placenta in great detail.

MC: Do people actually do that?

AR: They do. Please, unless you have a child named Placenta, spare us the details.

MC: I think we should close on that note.

AR: Are you really going to publish this? It’s a bit weak, don’t you think?

MC: Agreed, but I am anyway. Okay, stay tuned until next week, folks, when we air the annual edition of My Bowl Game Is Bigger than Your Bowl Game.