Writing Goofs are Funny - as Long as
They're Not Yours

by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

If ever the nation needed a good laugh or two, now is the time. And so as America strengthens its determination and forges alliances with other nations intent on eliminating terrorism and creating a more harmonious world, pause to enjoy a few chuckles resulting from disharmony in linguistic skills -- actual writing goofs we've encountered.

Homophones can create problems -- particularly for folks who don't know what they are. Homophones are words that sound alike (hence the "phone" suffix) but which are spelled differently and often have decidedly different meanings.

In an e-mail message, a radio engineer wrote, "Right now I'm in the throws of building another studio and it's keeping me frantic." Sure. Throwing equipment around the studio can have that effect. The engineer likely meant "throes" -- a difficult or painful struggle.

In an e-mail message, an office administrator wrote, "I stumbled upon a solution by shear necessity." Although "shear necessity" would be a good name for a line of cutlery products, the proper term in this instance would have been "sheer," in reference to being pure or complete.

Unintentionally humorous statements also can result from a malapropism, which is a misuse or distortion of a word or phrase -- particularly one that sounds somewhat like the one intended but is ludicrously wrong in its context.

A computer technician wrote, "Switching cables din help at all." Maybe she DIDN'T (contraction for "did not") hear the instructions properly through all the din (which means "noise"). Her familiarity with terms was obviously based more on sound than on actual knowledge of words and their etymology. That's the kind of error that had led to infamously misunderstood song lyrics, such as "There's a bathroom on the right" instead of the actual but somewhat slurred Creedence Clearwater Revival lyric "There's a bad moon on the rise." Another is the misunderstood line "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy" rather than the actual Jimi Hendrix lyric "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky."

How about the information technology administrator who acknowledged that "computer backup tapes had turned up missing" that morning? If they had turned up, then they really wouldn't be missing. Unfamiliarity with grammatical rules and the nuances of sentence construction can often have hilarious results. Consider the "spam" e-mail message with the subject line "Attract Men with Bigger Breasts!" The message was intended to appeal to women who wished to increase the size of their bustlines, but the improper use of a prepositional phrase turned it into a product apparently capable of producing an unnatural change in men.

Sometimes public officials can be disarmingly honest -- even more than they intend to be. Consider the mayor who forthrightly declared to reporters, "The first thing we need to do is roll up our sleeves and work very hard to see if we can't find a solution." Hmmm. Seems like very little hard work is required if the goal is making sure that he can't find a solution.

The mayor didn't listen carefully to his own words. Likewise, sometimes writers forget to read their own words, with the result that they don't say precisely what they intended to say. Failure to check a newspaper photo caption resulted in a published statement that said, "By the 1930s, automobiles were on the rise." Floating automobiles were not likely unless they were filled with helium. However, the NUMBER of automobiles was indeed on the rise. Not a serious mistake. Just a silly one.

"The governor's actions in this sorted affair leave a lot to be desired," declared a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Unless the word is changed to "sordid," that sounds like a job for the postal service.

"Call for information about how to create an asthma-friendly environment," offered a radio public service announcement. Seems like creation of an asthma-hostile environment would be more preferable. How about: "Call for information about how to create a more comfortable environment for asthma sufferers"?

Another radio announcement glorified an event as one of the most significant "through the annuals of time." The announcer meant "annals," meaning the record of events by yearly sequence. At least he didn't drop one of the "n"s.

Much of our use of speech is based upon the sounds we hear. No matter how confident you are in your own use of the language, keep a dictionary within reach and use it often to confirm proper spellings and meanings of words.

And by all means, keep your sense of humor and do your part to keep your colleagues laughing when it's appropriate. Just try to avoid doing so at your own expense.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs  marti@editpros.com Jeff March jeffm@editpros.com
423 F Street, Suite 206, Davis, CA 95616-4153
(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051 http://www.editpros.com

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