January 31, 2012

This, Then That, Rather Than the Other Thing

Here’s a pair of homonyms I often see badly battered by abuse on the internet. “Then” is a measurement of time, used to put two events into their proper chronological order: “I went to the store, and then I went to the bank.”

“Than” is used to compare two things: “I would rather go swimming than do errands.”

Remember them this way: “then” and “when” are spelled almost the same, while “than” and “compare” both have an “a” in them.


January 24, 2012

Misplaced Modifiers

I’ve been aware of this phenomenon since I was in junior high, or possibly even longer, but it was only in the last five years that I learned the name of it. A modifier is a word that modifies, or changes the meaning of another word. Adverbs modify verbs. Adjectives modify nouns. For example, you could use the sentence, “I ran.” That isn’t a very specific sentence, though, so you can add modifiers to make the meaning more clear. “I ran away quickly,” adds the information of where I ran (away) and how fast I was moving (quickly).

Misplaced modifiers are exactly what they sound like, a modifier in the wrong place. Most of the time, a modifier is placed directly before the word it modifies. In the sentence “I ate meat,” the word “only” can be added in three places, and give the sentence three entirely different meanings.

“Only I ate meat” would indicate that of all the persons present, I was the only one eating meat.

“I only ate meat” says that I did not prepare it, I just ate it.

“I ate only meat” says that I indulged in a meal without vegetables, fruits, or grains.

The modifier getting misplaced can sometimes be funny as well as confusing. Consider these:

“Hiking up the mountain, the thunderstorm was an unwelcome surprise to James.” Why was the thunderstorm hiking up the mountain? I can imagine it would be an unwelcome surprise to see a thunderstorm hiking up the mountain.

“Tumbling down the mountain, Susan feared the rocks would flatten her tent.” Was Susan tumbling down the mountain, or were the rocks? If Susan is falling down the side of the mountain, why is she worried about rocks smashing into her tent? I’d be more worried about me hitting the rocks on my way down the hill.

In both sentences, the problem can be solved by moving the modifying phrase closer to the word it is supposed to be modifying.

“Hiking up the mountain, James was surprised by an unwelcome thunderstorm.”

“Susan feared the rocks tumbling down the mountain would flatten her tent.”

When proofreading something you’ve written, if a sentence is awkward or doesn’t seem to make sense, try moving the modifiers around a bit, and see if the problem is a misplaced modifier.


January 17, 2012

Break the Brake

Can you tell I have a pet peeve against commonly confused words?

“Brake” is a noun. It’s part of a vehicle or piece of machinery that stops or slows motion.

“Break” is a verb. It’s when you take something that should be in one piece and make it so there’s more than one piece.

The two words even have all the same letters as each other; the only difference is where you put the vowels. Remember it this way: if you break a glass, you almost always say “eek!” as it falls and shatters. “Eek” and “break” have the vowels together. Brake separates the vowels, the same way a brake separates you from travelling at speed.


January 10, 2012

Bodaciously Copacetic

Thanks to Okie Dog, who suggested both of today’s words, and dictionary.com for providing the definitions.

bo·da·cious [boh-dey-shuhs]

1. South Midland and Southern U.S. thorough; blatant; unmistakable: a bodacious gossip.
2. Slang.
a. remarkable; outstanding: a bodacious story.
b. audacious; bold or brazen.
c. sexy; voluptuous.

Origin: 1835–45; probably to be identified with dial. (Devon, Cornwall) bo ( w ) ldacious  brazen, impudent, blend of bold  and audacious

co·pa·cet·ic [koh-puh-set-ik, -see-tik]

adjective; Slang.
fine; completely satisfactory; OK.

Also, copasetic, copesetic.
Origin: 1915–20, Americanism; of obscure origin; popular attributions of the word to Louisiana French, Italian, Hebrew, etc., lack supporting evidence.

Despite Suzanne’s bodacious behavior at the party, Mike assures me that everything was copacetic.


January 03, 2012


I thought I’d start the New Year off with another pair of easily confused words. In this case, the confusion comes because of similar pronunciation rather than similar spelling.

“Of” is a preposition. Prepositions show location or direction, and always have a few words tagging along behind them that contains a noun, such as “within five miles of the freeway”, or “south of Main Street”. “Of” is also commonly used to show where something came from or its composition, as in “a man of good family”, “piece of cake”, or the “books of A M Jenner”.

“Have” is a verb. When it’s alone, it means possession; I have a piece of cake. However, “have” is also used as a helper verb in past tense, and this is where the confusion starts. I could have gone to the party. I should have gone to the party. If I would have gone to the party, my boyfriend would not have broken up with me. When could have, should have, and would have, the three most common combinations, are contracted, they become could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve. In each case, the contracted part is pronounced “of”. Dictinary.com notes “inexperienced writers commonly confuse the words, [while] professional writers exploit the misspelling deliberately, especially in fiction, to represent the speech of the uneducated.” Don’t appear uneducated in your internet posting by using “could of” rather than the proper “could have”.