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JACK SMITH

On Sinking Deeper Into the Mire of Past Mistakes

December 13, 1989|JACK SMITH

"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 pitch in baseball, black as pitch (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 possibility of a person substituting a word for its homonym."

Both are quite right. The misuse of pitch (baseball) for pitch (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, piece is incorrect when peace 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 pitch when he should have used pitch , but readers continue to send me examples of misused homonyms (homophones) from this newspaper and others.

Among the recent crop: "these incidences will be eliminated;" "Griffith Park would be adversely effected "; "the affects of alcohol"; "the site of so many people in tuxedos"; "a barge-mounted crain "; "infrared censors "; "midriff- bearing tops"; "wiping out the precedence of almost two decades"; "he bares no malice"; "found themselves emersed "; "a backhanded complement "; " loathe to undertake"; "a clear breech of journalistic independence"; "not adverse to an occasional short holiday"; " pouring over the numbers"; "drilling cites "; "graduates hoards of illiterates"; "with momentos of the occasion"; "Suspect caught after week on lamb ."

Lynn Titus writes that she was "shocked" by my misspelling of dessert . "Most any former school teacher can tell you the method to remember the difference between these two words. The ss in dessert stands for strawberry shortcake and the s in desert 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 straightjacket as an erroneous homonym for straitjacket . He notes that Webster's gives straightjacket 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 to, two and too moved him to write his first limerick since high school:

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!

William Haines of El Segundo offers what he calls the ultimate homophone--a word with four different spellings and meanings and one pronunciation: Right, write, rite and wright .

By the way, Cloes points out that there is no way in the English language to say that there are three twos --(tos, toos?). (We can say there are three words that are pronounced tew .)

And there's only one way to pronounce pitch --whether it's wild or black as tar.

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