Homographs that’ll make your scratch your heads

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no ham in hamburger, no egg in eggplant, neither apple nor pine in pineapple. French fries weren’t invented in France, and English muffins weren’t invented in England. Furthermore, quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is not from Guinea nor is it a pig!

English is also a silly language at times, too. I mean, who in their right mind would create two words with the same spelling and different meanings? I am of course talking about those pesky homographs. For example:

“He wound up the clock with ease, even though he had a wound to his right hand.”

How ridiculous! Of course, you could, and probably would, rephrase that sentence to avoid the homographs. But there are times when we find ourselves accidentally sucked into the vacuum, and like a dog’s mess gracing the pavement of a dark lane, we occasionally step on a homograph-ridden sentence.

Now, before we dive into our list of homographs for your grammatical pleasure, bear in mind that a homograph that is also pronounced differently is called a ‘heteronym’. Oh, and while we’re here, don’t forget the ‘homophone’, which is when two or more words share the same pronunciation but have different meanings, and may or may not be spelled the same way.

And one last thing…

The homograph, heteronym and homophone are all types of ‘homonym’; which is defined as two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings.

Confused? Don’t sweat it. Your friends will scratch their scalps too when you share these:

1. Rita was too close to the door to close it.
2. Dan’s wife said he should polish the Polish furniture on a regular basis.
3. I did not object to the object in question.
4. There is no time like the present to present a friend with a present.
5. The vegetable farm was asked to produce organic produce for the local community.
6. Unfortunately the insurance was invalid for the invalid.
7. The dog lead was dangerous because it was made of lead.
8. I had to hide the animal hide before my vegetarian friend came to dinner.
9. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer pipeline.
10. There was a row between the oarsmen about how to row properly.
11. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
12. She shed a tear upon seeing the tear in the painting.
13. The soldier had to desert his platoon in the desert.
14. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
15. The buck does get rather excited when the does are around.
16. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse.
17. To help plant the seeds the farmer taught his sow to sow.
18. The contract was subject to the term that I didn’t contract an illness within the first two months.
19. It took me a minute to locate the minute hole in the fence.
20. After months of procrastination, Helen decided to resume writing her resume.
21. I shall stop here because I am content with this content!

by Jennifer Frost

Posted in Improve your English

10 American words you’ll never hear a British person say

cleatsWhat do we call this? A cleat? A shoe with cleats on?

This list is rife with bewilderment and confusion, as a British mind attempts to make sense of terms, names and phrases that simply do not happen on the European side of the Atlantic.

If you’re about to get married, and you want to throw a party to commemorate the passing of your single-ness, that’s got different names depending on where you are. The British prefer to call their male would-be-weds stags and their female counterparts hens. So instead of a bachelor or bachelorette party, there’s a stag do and a hen do. And it’s unlikely that, as with other traditions like baby showers, the American version will eventually take over as, to most British ears bachelorette sounds like an unnecessarily frilly feminization of an exclusively male term, akin to, I dunno, beardette or prostatrix.

Sometimes other people’s language decisions can be baffling. Imagine you’d never heard the term backhoe before, would you assume it meant the same as digger? Neither did I. Digger seems a lot clearer a word for a vehicle with a big digging device on its back—even one used for hoeing—than backhoe. Put a digger (most commonly known by its trade name JCB) in front of a Brit and ask them to think of alternative names for this invaluable building tool, and they simply would not come close to backhoe. Why would they? It’s a digger. It is used for digging. It digs. Backhoe? Tsk!

Bear claw (and elephant ear)
It’s odd, given that there are so many British sweet snacks with strangely unappetizing names—flies graveyard, fat rascal—that the bear claw and elephant ear haven’t made their way across the Atlantic. It is certainly not a lack of interest in danish-style pastries with fruit filling or palmier-style pastry swirls. Suffice to say if you’re visiting the U.K. and ask your hosts where you could get your hands on a bear claw, be prepared to wind up at the zoo.

This is a little fiddly. Basically, U.S. sporting terminology uses the term cleats to describe a pair of shoes or boot with studs or spikes coming out of the sole to avoid slipping on grass. However, the U.K. version, the word simply refers to the studs themselves. That is, if we use the word at all (studs seems to work just fine). The only slight exception is that cyclists, whose cleats are not studs, do use the word more often, but its by no means common. You’re far more likely to hear football or rugby boots referred to as football or rugby boots, golf shoes as golf shoes, and for cyclists to talk openly about the stuff on the soles of their footwear to a largely befuddled audience.

The M25 is a mighty motorway, forming a circle around London and keeping it safe from invaders (by creating a mighty perimeter shield of traffic). It is a road, and it is roughly in the shape of a ring, so it, and other roads that do a similar job, are known as ring roads. By contrast, a beltway sounds more like the bit where your groceries go at the supermarket, or possibly a branch of Weight Watchers that focuses more on girth than poundage.

The Brits have an international reputation for cooking food in hot liquids, so you could forgive them a moment’s confusion over the words boil and broil, especially when they’re really not the same thing. If you want to make toast, you have no toaster but you do have a cooker with an overhead heat source, for a Brit, that’s grilling, not broiling, as it takes place under a grill. Although grilling isn’t a million miles away from griddling, so neither approach makes life easy for hard-working chefs in a noisy kitchen environment. Let’s call this a draw.

Not that it would be hard to work out what someone meant if they used the term in the U.K., but if you were to come home to your home and find someone had broken in and stolen your stuff, while we can all agree that the crime is burglary, the verb form of that term is very different. While Americans say burglarize, Brits say burgle because it’s a crime committed by burglars, not burglarizers.

A fine old American expression, derived from “would rather” (as in “if I had my would-rathers, I’d been living in Paris now”), but one that is entirely unknown in the U.K. outside of the context of American literature. It’s not that there’s been a decision not to use the term, delightful and colorful as it is, it’s just not used, and would probably cause a curling-up and blushing of any British person brave enough to give it a go.

It’s not as if there isn’t a term for things reaching their least unexpected state in the U.K—normality—it’s just the suffix is different. Normalcy just seems like a deliberately strange alternate choice, one which raises the interesting possibility of other options that may have once been on the table during a long and protracted brainstorm, such as normalitude, normalment, normalness or (for normal women) normalatrix.

Stick shift
“Do you drive a stick?” is a question that always raises a quizzical British eyebrow whenever it crops up in American TV shows or books, not least because the person asking it is always pointing to a car and never at anything that ever fell off a tree. And for once, this is a difference of culture as well as simple language. The British driver’s default position is to drive a car with a manually operated gearbox and three pedals. Automatic gearboxes were traditionally viewed with suspicion and only relatively recently enjoyed any kind of prominence as a driver option in Britain. Consequently, not only is it nonsensical to enquire as to the option of driving what Brits call a manualbecause almost everyone does, they wouldn’t understand stick shift as a term either, especially as automatics also have a stick that requires shifting.

10 Words Brits Use That Americans No Longer Do


A quick example of the bleeding obvious: people speak differently in the UK and the US. If you’re an American fan of British TV shows—the originals, not the American remakes—you’re probably very aware that once in a while, the characters will utter a word that you won’t hear on the streets of your hometown.

But you may be surprised to know that some of the words we consider distinctly British today were once fairly common in the United States. Read on:

1 Tetchy, adjective Someone who is tetchy is someone with a bad temper:
               You can’t even talk with him these days; he’s just too tetchy.

2 Amongst, preposition While amongst is less favored than among in British English, it’s rarely seen at all in American English.
               There’s a grammar pedant amongst us, and I intend to find out who he is.

3 Marvelous, adjective Sure, you can use amazing instead, but marvelous sounds so much more . . . marvelous:
               We had a marvelous time during that holiday retreat.

4 Fortnight, noun Something that happens once every fortnight is something that happens every two weeks:
                 We try to get together for a family meal once a fortnight.

5 Cheers, exclamation In British English, cheers isn’t something you’d say when it’s time to have a drink. It’s a casual way to say “thank you”:
              Cheers Thom, I really needed that paper today.

6 Rubbish, noun, adjective You know this one, it has the same meaning as garbage. Plus, rubbish can be used as an adjective when you want to say that something is really bad:
              I bought a new keyboard today, but it’s rubbish so I’ll give it to my brother.

7 Blimey, exclamation If you ever get tired of saying “wow,” you might make an effort to bring blimey back:
               Blimey, that escalated quickly!

8 Hoover, noun A hoover is a device that uses suction to clean surfaces—a vacuum cleaner:
               The hoover broke because it’s not supposed to be used to clean up spilled water.

9 Bespoke, adjective Before things were custom-made, they were bespoke, especially if they were suits:
               A bespoke suit is expensive, but it’s a good investment if you want to look professional.

10 Chap, noun Chap is an informal way of referring to a male person, sort of like “dude”:
                  See that chap wearing a yellow bow-tie? That’s my biology professor.

What Is the Singular They, and Why Should I Use It?


hjfjfLanguage has changed a lot in the last year, with the singular they being voted the most important word of the year, and numerous dictionaries adding gender-neutral usage notes. Merriam-Webster even introduced the gender-neutral honorific Mx. to their unabridged dictionary this year, forever ending the question of what to call someone whose gender is nonbinary (i.e., not male or female). It’s about time we talked about they in particular and gender-neutral pronouns as a whole, and it’s time we discussed why they’re important to binary and nonbinary folks alike.

First, Some Terminology

We’d like to start by defining a few key terms in this discussion, with some help from our friends at the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Here are four gender-related terms that you should know:

Gender: A set of cultural identities, expressions, and roles—traditionally categorized as feminine or masculine—that are assigned to people based on the interpretation of their bodies, and more specifically, their sexual and reproductive anatomy. Since gender is a social construction, it is possible for people to reject or modify the assignments given to them and develop something that feels truer and more just to themselves.

Gender binary: A socially constructed system of viewing gender as male or female, in which no other possibilities for gender are believed to exist. The gender binary is inaccurate because it does not take into account the diversity of gender identities and gender expressions among all people. The gender binary is oppressive to anyone who does not conform to dominant societal gender norms.

Nonbinary: Adjective describing a person who identifies as neither male nor female.

Of course, these three terms are just the beginning of a discussion about gender, but for the purposes of talking about gender-neutral or third-gender pronouns, they’re a great start. If you have more questions about gender or sexuality, I’d highly recommend GLSEN’s resources on the subject.

English Evolves!

One of the great lies about the English language is that it remains static. Grammar pedants and trolls generally operate under a series of assumptions about language, which may or may not reflect current usage and accepted norms. In the linguistics community, there is actually a term for this view of language—prescriptivism.

Even if we adhere to certain rules to make communication easier for people across regions, dialects, and levels of writing proficiency, the language will eventually evolve. The singular they is simply another way English is changing for the shorter, the more empathetic, the better. The singular they is not even a new phenomenon. Merriam-Webster includes usage examples of the singular they dating back to Shakespeare, with notable additions from the likes of Jane Austen and even the traditionalist W. H. Auden. The singular they is nothing new, but in making our language more inclusive of people of a myriad of genders, this simple word is becoming more and more important.

LGBTQ Harassment and Personal Gender Pronouns

According to a 2013 GLSEN study, more than 64.5 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students hear homophobic remarks at school. Of these students, 33.1 percent have heard harassing remarks specifically targeting transgender students. For transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, and other nonbinary students, this can have extreme consequences, from lower GPAs to missed classes to suicide.

Clearly, language matters, and it’s especially important to people whose gender does not match cultural assumptions. That’s why we support and respect the use of whichever personal gender pronouns a person or group may choose to describe themselves. What’s a personal gender pronoun, you ask? GLSEN defines personal gender pronouns (PGPs for short) as “The pronoun or set of pronouns that a person would like to be called by when their proper name is not being used.” For people who identify as male or female, this is generally he or she, but trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming folks may use a variety of pronouns. They could use the singular gender-neutral “they” .

Since we’re focusing on the singular gender-neutral they here, it’s important to note that many people at different points of the gender spectrum use “they.” When you’re using it in a sentence, you can say something like this:

“They is a talented artist. I really enjoyed their painting of a flower in art class yesterday.”

But Wait, “They” Is Useful for Everyone!

Now that we’ve talked briefly about how to use they for people who have chosen it as their PGP, let’s talk about how it can help people who identify as he or she. Merriam-Webster sums up the situation well in their usage note for they:

They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone).

Although English has many great qualities, it’s never been great with indefinite pronouns. Traditionally, he was the default pronoun for a person whose gender you didn’t know, as in this quote from Thomas Huxley:

“Suppose the life and fortune of every one of us would depend on his winning or losing a game of chess.”— Thomas Huxley

But, as many have pointed out, gendering all unknown people as male is sexist and inaccurate. That’s why Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary have recently added notes supporting the use of the singular they for a person whose gender you don’t know. “The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage,” says the American Heritage Dictionary, in their usage note on the subject.

Admittedly, using the singular they in a formal context may still cause some raised eyebrows, so be careful if you’re submitting a paper to a particularly traditional teacher or professor. But the tides are turning, and English will soon be more efficient because of usages like this:

If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for them.

Note that, if we did not use the singular they, that sentence would read:

If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for him.

Or, if we tried to make some awkward amalgam of current language norms, we might write:

If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for him/her.

Furthermore, if Sally or George identified as a gender other than male or female, even the above Frankenstein-ed sentence would be incorrect. After all, your name does not determine your gender or your preferred gender pronouns.

There must be a better way!

Luckily, using the singular they makes English a more efficient language, and it helps us to avoid awkward sentence constructions. More importantly, though, it allows you to avoid making assumptions about the gender of a person you don’t know.

Their Pronoun, Themself

Of course, not everyone will agree that it’s time to formally accept the singular gender-neutral they. GLSEN’s research reminds us that people who would use they as their preferred gender pronoun have long been the subjects of harassment and discrimination, although things are changing. Grammarly supports the individual choice of pronouns and is using the hashtag #theyisok this week to start a dialogue about PGPs, gender neutral pronouns, and the singular they.

What do you think about the gender-neutral use of they? Leave a comment below on your experience with personal gender pronouns.

adapted from Grammarly, Celeste Mora