“Oh dear white children, casual as birds, playing among the ruined languages, so small beside their large confusing words.” – W.H. Auden

Of course it’s not just the small, casual children who confuse words. The last couple of times I ranted about people who misused similar-sounding words, most of the people in my crosshairs happened to be members of television news programs. Why? simply because their profession made them easy targets.

Obviously there are lots of other people out there whose grammatical flubs get the hypercorrect voices in my head screaming at me to do something about it. Why, just the other day I noticed that someone had the audacity to put “HAY BRO” on his or her license plate. Clever farmer with bales of tall, dry grass to sell? Maybe, but I’m pretty sure they meant to say “HEY BRO” instead.

In fact, I think the first time I realized that I might be a word guy came about in 1980s Rumford because of a similar case of vehicular language violation. It was closing time at the local watering hole and right outside the front door was parked a beautiful customized van that had “Jest passing through” lettered on its side.

One voice in my head told me to go ask the owner if it was supposed to be misspelled. “Shouldn’t that be ‘Just passing through’” I would have asked, “unless you’re a standup comedian, or maybe an actual jester?”

Fortunately the voice of reason won the argument, and since I had no desire to be punched in the nose in the wee hours of that particular Sunday morning, I decided to follow the lead of a quote that’s been attributed to everybody from Mark Twain to Robert Benchley: “Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.”

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Much more recently, a teacher at my school handed out copies of a daily planner that included a section in the back called “Commonly Confused Words.” All was well in the section until it came to the adjective “coarse,” which it correctly defined as “rough or crude.”

Problem is that it kept that same spelling for the noun meaning “a route, a mode of action,” and for the verb meaning “to move rapidly along.” Of course the correct course of action would have been to spell the noun and the verb “course.”

Even more recently, I heard no fewer than four news anchors (you knew I wouldn’t be able to leave them alone, didn’t you?) reporting that someone was going to “hone in” on something. Since “hone” means “to sharpen or improve incrementally,” they obviously meant “home in,” or “to move or be guided toward something.” You know, like a homing pigeon.

Finally, here’s my trifecta of pet peeves as heard on the evening news – they don’t occur all that often, but when they do, the voices start up again. The first is when people say “enormity” (extreme evil) when they mean “enormousness” (being huge in size or scope).

Next is every time reporters use “tortuous“ (having many turns and bends) when they mean “torturous” (causing pain or anguish).

And finally there’s the “temblor” (a tremor or earthquake) that gets referred to as a “trembler” (a person or thing that trembles).

As you can tell, I’m much more comfortable calling out people’s mistakes from behind my computer’s keyboard as opposed to doing it face-to-face. This way I’m relatively safe – unless somebody figures out how to email a punch in the nose. Or maybe a heymaker.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


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