Grandma's Tales

November 21, 2006

Grammar – 15 Speak aloud! You’re allowed!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:48 pm

In his remarks on citizen journalism, Will Femia of “Clicked” wrote:

Reporters always interview eye witnesses and principle players in a news story. Why is a first hand account less reliable if the reporter isn’t standing there with a notepad in hand?

Who are “principle players” in a news story? I wouldn’t know. If the players in the news story stand by certain principles (beliefs or rules by which one lives) the phrase should be “principled players”. But a reporter covering a story, say an accident, cannot wait to find out if the players in the story are “principled”. Not with competition breathing down his front-at-the-back baseball cap. So does the writer mean “principal” and got the spelling wrong? Likely. Since “principal” means “main” or “chief”. As an adjective, it’s usually used before a noun (the principal character). As a noun, it means the head of an educational institution or money.
This is a common slip-up and is listed under “homophone errors”. Homophones are words that sound alike but differ in spelling and meaning. There are also homonyms and homographs but those are for another day.

Why does this happen? Simply because we tend to shorten or slur words and phrases when we speak. The “principal” in “Hush! The Principal (the main person) is here!” sounds very similar to “principle” in “On principle I won’t let him go scot-free“. You have been listening to the words for a while and you think they are spelt the same. Sigh! One of the problems of translating what you think into writing!

One resourceful teacher (is there any other kind?) told her students who insisted on mixing up these two words: “Children, take the last three letters of the word “Principal”, you get “pal”, right? Think of the Principal as your pal and when you have to write “Principal” you’ll know how to spell it.” The kids might have had a tough time thinking of the Principal as their pal, but the very thought of it might have helped them remember the correct way to spell the word.

Homonym errors quash the unreasonable plea, “Why should kids be penalised for wrong spelling?” The answer is: the pizza is more than I can eat and The pizza is more then I can eat are not the same at all, though the difference is just one measly letter.

Look at these sentences.
Mr. XYZ ordered the civic official to immediately bale out water from the Ambattur and Tambaram depots. [bale out (generally)- make emergency parachute jump from aircraft. If the writer meant “scoop out water”, he should go in for “bail out”.]


Another word that gives you a bumpy ride (write?) is “pore”. “Pore” as a verb means “to be absorbed in studying”. I pored over several books on the subject before writing the answer.

But we don’t want to “pore over” books. We want to “pour over books” and we keep “pour what over (cause something to flow)” books a secret. We take a similar stumble with the words “cite, site, sight”.

Check before you write: beech or beach? Board or bored? Break or brake? Grateful or greatful? Bye, by or bye? Chord or cord? Compliment of complement?


Watch out for the quiz.





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