Tag Archives: homonym

Contra-indications

I have always had sympathy for those learning English as a second language. In fact, there was a time when I planned to be an ESL teacher because I thought I could help take some of the pain out of learning our difficult language.

We seem to have more exceptions than rules. We spell words alike but pronounce them differently, we spell them differently but pronounce them the same and we offer cutesy ways of remembering rules when, in fact, those usually come with a little Gotcha.

We have already talked extensively about homonyms, which present some of the most frustrating challenges.

There is another class of words that must drive new English speakers to insanity because, essentially, they are their own opposites. These are the auto-antonyms, also called contranyms.

Imagine you are learning a second language. You are working hard to commit new vocabulary words to memory. Just when you learn a word, along with its proper context, you hear or read it used and it appears to mean the opposite of what you had learned it meant.

The first one I ever noticed was “sanction,” which means both to condone and to punish. Another is “oversight,” which involves both throughly overseeing something to ensure no errors are made, and missing an error altogether by not looking closely enough.

How about “dust?” One dusts to remove dust but also dusts by sprinkling dust on something, e.g., in order to detect fingerprints or garnish a dish of food.

A “rock” is something stable, that does not move, but a rock is also a back-and-forth motion.

I am a native speaker of English but I was perplexed to learn, after years of sitting in business meetings in which issues were “tabled,” or taken off the table, that, in international trade negotiations, to “table” means to put something, typically an offer, on the table.

Here’s a goofy one:  “left.” When a person has left, he is gone, no longer there. When a person is left, he is still there. The same with objects: three cookies were left on the plate.

“Presently” means both now and later. Presently, I am at my desk, but I will meet you at the restaurant presently.

At the risk of appearing political, it seems we are quick to demand that visitors learn our language and become fluent in it practically overnight. It’s reasonable to ask people to try their best to speak English within our borders but, before we lose our patience, perhaps we should first consider the oddities and complexities they must also grasp. Maybe we could all become ESL teachers, or at least tutors, when opportunity presents. We can start by tutoring ourselves on this exhaustive list of auto-antonyms, published by Florida State University.

For now though, let’s wind up this discussion. (But does that mean we are beginning or ending it?)

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Sounds easy enough

You’ve seen me refer to the Fake AP Stylebook before. The group puts out funny little comments about language every day on Facebook and Twitter. If you don’t use these, you can go elsewhere to see some great examples. Some really get me thinking.

Case in point:  A recent post observed, “there/their/they’re – What, seriously? This confuses you?”

I have never had trouble distinguishing among the three. I don’t find it confusing at all. But it’s not because I’m good at remembering rules necessarily; otherwise, I’d have gotten this bring-versus-take thing down long ago.

What I realized is that it says something about the way my brain works.

When I hear and when I speak, I see the words written out. I suppose this means I am a visual learner or perhaps a visual thinker. I envision words as they are spelled. Maybe that’s why I have such a sensitive ear when it comes to pronunciation. If people saw “sherbet,” maybe they wouldn’t say “sherbert.”

Like the Fake AP Stylebook, when I see there/their/they’re confused, I am tempted to wonder how anyone can get it wrong. I also wonder how anyone graduated from second grade without mastering it, but perhaps I’m too quick to judge.

“There,” “their” and “they’re” are homonyms. They sound exactly the same. It’s no wonder people who are not visual learners might be homonymphobic.

If we had to spell according to how words sound (“sound it out,” we were always told), especially in this confusing language we call English, how can we be expected to commit the difference to paper?

Maybe I can offer some tips.

Let’s start with “there.” “There” is often the answer to “where?” “Where are my glasses? There they are.” On top of my head, usually. So that one’s easy:  Where?  There! Spelled the same (after their respective consonant digraphs).

“They’re” is a contraction of “they” and “are.” Until I had a baby, I thought contractions were easy. You begin with what you are (you’re) trying to say and shorten it; for example, “They are” doing something. With a contraction, typically a letter and a space come out, an apostrophe goes in and, voilà, two words become one. In a sense, they’re getting married. To use song lyrics as a prompt, “They’re Playing Our Song” or, for readers of my generation, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa.” By now they probably are.

I haven’t come up with a tip for “their.” Maybe you have one. For now, let’s just say it’s the other one, and remember, “i” before “e” except after “c.”  Oops, and except in “their.”

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