Your Halloween treat: five tricky word pairs

This English language of ours is devilishly tricky.

Jack o'lanternFor your Halloween reading pleasure, here are five especially ghoulish word pairs.

If you use these words properly, you’ll win the respect and admiration of careful writers everywhere. If you don’t, your readers — some of them, anyway — will shriek in terror.

A new tact: Tack is what a yachtsman does to align a boat with the wind. Changing tack, or taking a new tack, sets the boat moving in a new direction. Taking a new tact simply doesn’t make sense. I can’t say it any more tactfully than that.

Don’t jive with me: Jibe, another word that comes to us from the sea, means to bring things into agreement. If your position jibes with mine, then we’re cool. But if it jives with mine, then you’re just being phony.

A rift on an old theme: I recently read a blog post in which another blogger was said to be rifting on a particular topic. A riff is a rhythmic phrase in music. A rift is a crack in the ground. Maybe the rifting blogger was making, um, wise cracks.

Now hear this: When you like what somebody has said, and you want others in the audience to listen, the expression is hear, hear! If you write here, here, that won’t get you anywhere, anywhere.

Honing in: When your focus narrows, do you home in or hone in? Do you come closer to home, or do you hone (sharpen) your sights? For my money, it’s home in — although much to my surprise, one of my favorite dictionaries, Wordnik, disagrees. So if you like to write hone in, I promise to keep my shrieking to a minimum.

At this witching season, which other homonyms (or near homonyms) have you heard being used in ways that are ghoulish?

Adapted from an article in the SDI blog, 28 October 2010

10 thoughts on “Your Halloween treat: five tricky word pairs

  1. Mark Baker

    Hmmmm. Well this begs the question of where incorrect begins and where dialect and language development ends. The etymology of many current words shows similar shifts. The words resulting from those shifts are now accepted as standard.

    When the word used differs from current usage among the people it is addressed to, such that it could cause confusion and misunderstanding, that is clearly an error. I’m not sure that that is the case with any of the examples you give. Of course, that was the point — to highlight subtle cases that a writer or speaker might not be aware of. But such cases, where most people would not recognize anything unfamiliar about the expression chosen, we arguably have a case of drift or development rather than error. Error, in other words, should be judged not by an absolute standard, or a stake placed in the ground at an arbitrary point in language development, but by the effect on the persons addressed.

    A case in point is my use of “beg the question” above. In philosophy, begging the question means assuming the conclusion of an argument in one of its premise. The statement “One should not say jive instead of jibe because it is an error.” is an example of begging the question because “it is an error” is both a premise and the conclusion. Most people today would call this a circular argument.

    I used “beg the question” here, as most people use it today, to mean, “invites the question”. It is so commonly used in this sense today (and so rarely used in the philosophical sense) that this is which it is commonly understood to mean. This being so, is it an error?

  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Mark. It does beg — er, raise — the question of where to draw the line between incorrect usage and the evolution of language. All of these phrases are probably moving toward becoming standard, but in my view they haven’t quite gotten there yet. Use them in your writing, and I think they’ll raise enough eyebrows that some readers (certainly not all) will doubt your trustworthiness as a writer.

    Re “beg the question”: I actually wrote a Halloween-themed post like this in 2009, in which I pounced on that very phrase. I’ve since conceded the point on this one, although I still can’t bring myself to use the phrase in its more modern sense. (And I know that if I use it in its original sense I’ll probably be misunderstood. So, alas, I don’t use it at all.)

    1. Mark Baker

      Yes, there are certainly people who would notice and look down on you for each of the cases you cited. But then I suspect there are people who would notice and look down on you for not using the modern forms — the only ones they have ever seen.

      Which does sometimes leave us in the position in which it is best to avoid a phrase altogether rather than to risk offending either camp. Part of good writing is avoiding creating stumbling blocks for the reader, and words and phrases in the midst of a drift can create such stumbling blocks.

  3. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Larry, Wonderful Halloween tie-in. Leave it to you.

    Bryan Garner has a thorough and helpful discussion of the use of “hone in” for “home in.” Here are his concluding paragraphs:

    “The third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage marks the misuse of hone in for home in at Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index (Widespread but . . .). Given the phrase’s treatment by Merriam Webster’s, it’s most likely advanced by now to Stage 4 (Ubiquitous but . . .).

    Regardless of the increasing use of hone in, this is not a case of incipient language change. The phrase will always be both a faulty metaphor and a grammatical gaffe: ‘sharpen in’ is simply nonsensical. So, to hone your writing and speech, remember the humble homing pigeon to home in on the right phrase.”

    His full discussion:

    More on his Language-Change Index:

  4. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Marcia — especially for the links to Bryan Garner’s work (with which I wasn’t familiar). I’m not sure why Garner thinks “faulty metaphor / grammatical gaffe” and “incipient language change” are mutually exclusive. But I appreciate the way he, and others like him, stand on the battlements of language.

    1. Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Larry, I understand your point about Garner’s observation here. If you aren’t familiar with his work, you owe yourself a treat: get the latest edition (3rd) of Garner’s Modern American Usage, and allow yourself to fall into it. You may never come out.

    2. Mark Baker

      I’m with you on this, Larry. Incipient language change has no rules other than acceptance by the majority of speakers within a domain. Lots of current words can be traced back to “faulty metaphor or grammatical gaffe” in the past.

      But grammatical gaffe is an expression that should be reserved for the mistakes of grammarians. Speakers of the language may make usage gaffes, if they do not use the language in a way the current speakers expect and understand, but these should not be called grammatical gaffes. (Or, to follow my own rule, we should accept that “grammatical gaffe” in common usage means “usage gaffe”, whereas in this conversation is means something distinct from it.)

      And this is the problem I have with people standing on the battlements of language: Language belongs to the people. It is the most truly democratic institution we have. If grammarians would humbly watch and usefully guide people in current usage, they would be doing yeoman service. When the stand on the battlements to resist popular movements, they are attempting to usurp a power that does not belong to them (though happily with little success).

  5. radaghastblog

    Not quite in the category of homonyms, but how about Halloween-related words…in Irish?

    One of my favorite Irish Twitter contributors is Darach Ó Séaghdha, who posts as ”The Irish For…” In his latest full column for online magazine Séaghdha describes several “spooky” Irish words including púca, which I always thought was a ghost horse that could carry an unsuspecting rider to the fairy world. But he says, “A púca is a supernatural creature, such as a ghost or a goblin. Is púca the origin of the English word spooky? Absolutely not- spook comes from Dutch. Is there a link between it and the Japanese word Pokemon? Even more unlikely. Why do so many distinct, separate cultures have such similar-sounding words for mischievous supernatural creatures? Ask the one standing behind you.”
    So, not only do we need to use the right words when we write, it’s best to know the correct meanings of the words we choose…or a púca might carry us away. 👻


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