"As usual," writes David S. Robinson, "when you write a column relative to an error you have made, you manage to just sink deeper in the mire."
He refers to my recent mea culpa on the misspelling of dessert as desert , from which I leaped into a dissertation on the homonym and its sisters, the homophone and the homograph.
Specifically, he questions my implication that using a word as its homonym is a detectable error, a homonym being a word that is pronounced and spelled like another, but has a different meaning: e.g., a \o7 pitch \f7 in baseball, black as \o7 pitch \f7 (the example I gave.)
"How is the reader supposed to know if a mistake has been made?" he asks. "That would seem to require a display of mind reading. That would be the last thing for you to suggest. . . ."
Saul Epstein is similarly perturbed. "How do you know?" he asks. "I have trouble in coming to grips with even the \o7 possibility \f7 of a person substituting a word for its homonym."
Both are quite right. The misuse of \o7 pitch\f7 (baseball) for \o7 pitch \f7 (tar) is most improbable. And if the words are spelled the same and pronounced the same, how could any such unlikely error in print (or speech) be discovered?
However, as I did point out, homonym is used synonymously with homophone, a word that sounds like another but has a different spelling and meaning. Thus, \o7 piece \f7 is incorrect when \o7 peace \f7 is meant. This kind of error is the most common made by otherwise literate writers.
It would be impossible to say whether anyone has used \o7 pitch \f7 when he should have used \o7 pitch\f7 , but readers continue to send me examples of misused homonyms (homophones) from this newspaper and others.
Among the recent crop: "these \o7 incidences \f7 will be eliminated;" "Griffith Park would be adversely \o7 effected\f7 "; "the \o7 affects \f7 of alcohol"; "the \o7 site \f7 of so many people in tuxedos"; "a barge-mounted \o7 crain\f7 "; "infrared \o7 censors\f7 "; "midriff-\o7 bearing\f7 tops"; "wiping out the \o7 precedence \f7 of almost two decades"; "he \o7 bares \f7 no malice"; "found themselves \o7 emersed\f7 "; "a backhanded \o7 complement\f7 "; "\o7 loathe\f7 to undertake"; "a clear \o7 breech \f7 of journalistic independence"; "not \o7 adverse\f7 to an occasional short holiday"; "\o7 pouring \f7 over the numbers"; "drilling \o7 cites\f7 "; "graduates \o7 hoards\f7 of illiterates"; "with \o7 momentos \f7 of the occasion"; "Suspect caught after week on \o7 lamb\f7 ."
Lynn Titus writes that she was "shocked" by my misspelling of \o7 dessert\f7 . "Most any former school teacher can tell you the method to remember the difference between these two words. The \o7 ss\f7 in \o7 dessert \f7 stands for strawberry shortcake and the \o7 s\f7 in \o7 desert \f7 stands for sand."
Avalee Nichols of Coronado says she phoned the San Diego Union to point out that she found "sounding brass and tinkling symbols" in a George Will column and that an editor told her "I don't presume to correct George Will."
Far be it from me, also, to correct George Will, but I would have thought that cymbals clanged and bells tinkled.
John A. Cloes challenges my listing of \o7 straightjacket \f7 as an erroneous homonym for \o7 straitjacket\f7 . He notes that Webster's gives \o7 straightjacket \f7 as a variant. Correct.
Mostly, readers had fun. Joseph Ansen recalls the perhaps apocryphal family story about an aunt who ran an antiques shop but refused to stock any items dating from before the Civil War. He says, "We never could find out what made auntie anti-antebellum."
Roland D. Hutchinson of Sun City, psychology professor emeritus of Cal State L.A., says my mention of \o7 to, two \f7 and \o7 too\f7 moved him to write his first limerick since high school:
\o7 Three trains to old Kathmandu
Had choices exceedingly few.
One switched to track One,
Another to Two;
The third had to go to Two too!\f7
William Haines of El Segundo offers what he calls the ultimate homophone--a word with four different spellings and meanings and one pronunciation: \o7 Right, write, rite \f7 and \o7 wright\f7 .
By the way, Cloes points out that there is no way in the English language to say that there are three \o7 twos\f7 --(tos, toos?). (We can say there are three words that are pronounced \o7 tew\f7 .)
And there's only one way to pronounce \o7 pitch\f7 --whether it's wild or black as tar.