The Beatles had it right — for a pun, anyway

Today’s tour of Homophone Hell visits several words: core, corps, corpse, and corp (the latter properly styled Corp.).

Why the Beatles? Some readers will recall the company founded by the Fab Four in 1968: Apple Corps. “Corps” is pronounced like “core,” and we know what an apple core is, right? The name’s a wonderful pun on that, in addition to playing on “Corp.”, which is short for “corporation.” More on those two later.

“Core” isn’t the real issue here. I very seldom see this one misused in print. Apparently it’s pretty easy for folks to grasp all around: the core of the matter, a reactor core, etc.

Now, to the problem children.

“Corps” is the word you see when someone talks about the full name of the U.S. Marines: The United States Marine Corps. It’s not an abbreviation. That’s the whole word, right there: corps. It’s also used in the Peace Corps and Job Corps. “Corps” isn’t always capitalized: The press corps was kept waiting for three hours while the Congress threw spitballs across the aisles at one another.

Say “core” when you see “corps,” and know that it means either an organized part of the military, a military group with two or more divisions (in the technical military sense of the word), or a group of people involved in an activity (that’s the press corps). It’s not the Marine Corp., unless you’re talking about a company (Marine) that uses “corporation” in its name (Corp.) — and then you’d say “Marine Corporation.”

“Corps” and “Corp.” seem to be the biggest problems, based on my experience as a copyeditor. (I’ll blame the words, not their users. It’s kinder to all concerned.)

Then we have “corpse.” It’s pronounced as you’d expect: korps. It means a dead body. While you might think it is a homophone for “corps,” it isn’t. (Or, think of it the other way around: “Corps” isn’t a homophone for “corpse.” Whichever way works for you is how you need to think of it.) While dead bodies are certainly offensive to some folks, the word “corpse” isn’t a big offender in this particular arena — I seldom see it misused.

All right, then. “Core” and “corps” are homophones. The latter means an organized group (military or otherwise). “Corpse” is pronounced with the final -s aspirated (meaning it’s a hissing sound). And “corp” isn’t correct unless it’s styled “Corp.” and is used instead of “Corporation.”

Now I think it’s time to check on the press corps, and perhaps send a few nasty emails to the Exxon-Mobil Corp. while I’m at it. Better yet, I’ll pack up some apple cores and ship ’em off to my representatives. They didn’t earn fruit baskets this year.

He’s a real loose canon

An email last week reminded me of this particular bit of Homophone Hell: canon and cannon.

The correct word for the titular phrase is, of course, “cannon.” You know what cannons are. They’re those enormous guns, sometimes on ships, sometimes on the ground. They’ve got a wicked recoil when they fire, too. And on a ship, they had to be fastened in position or they posed even more of a danger because they could run a sailor over, being “loose cannons.”

So in our phrase up there in the title, what is “canon?” Well . . . substituting the definition for the word makes a sentence that’s utter rubbish. “He’s a real loose general law or criterion, or a collection of sacred books accepted as genuine.”

Likewise, if you talk about Star Wars canon or Star Trek canon or Whovian canon, you want the one-n spelling. You’re talking about the corpus of information that’s accepted to be the basis of those shows, the core, the “rules” if you will. “That fanfic isn’t canon, and I won’t read it.” It’s not cannon, either, but that’s beside the point. I suppose it could become ammunition . . . naah.

Dean Hamilton wrote a great blog post about these two words over at Tyburn Tree. (And it was his email to me last week that reminded me of this little trip into Homophone Hell!)

And of course, there really is a Loose Canon. Here’s a picture of it. You can get it for yourself over at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

An actual Loose Canon with copyright and everything!
An actual Loose Canon with copyright and everything!

Are horses and kings alike?

Hey, folks. This is another one of those discussions where there’s a mostly right answer to the question, but not a wholly definitive one. (Not to my mind, anyway. I know what I prefer, but that don’t make it right, as they say.) And that makes it especially fitting for Homophone Hell, because . . . there’s no way out. ::cackles::

The title should have clued you in pretty well. Is the phrase “free rein” or “free reign?” The answer is “yes.” (I sighed heavily as I typed that, just so you know.)

“Free rein” comes from the equestrian realm. It’s a rein held loosely, giving the horse relative freedom (until he’s reined in). The phrase can be applied to other entities as well, not just horses. A manager may be given free rein to make her own decisions, until her superior thinks she’s gone too far — at which point he reins her in.

“Free reign” is the alternate wording, and there’s a great discussion of it here at Daily Writing Tips. It discusses the process of conflation between “rein” and “reign” clearly, and give supporting evidence in the form of search-engine hits. “To reign” means “to wield the power of a king” — I can see how some folks made the jump from giving a horse (or a person, or a corporation, or a whatever) its freedom to do what it wants, but . . . anyway.  I won’t rehash the entire post. I will, however, offer the ending quote of the original post (there’s an addendum), with which I fully agree:

“I shall continue to write ‘free rein,’ but free reign is here to stay.”

::heavy sigh::



Do you complete me, or are you just being nice?

We’ll continue our tour through Homophone Hell today with complement and compliment. Technically, there’s a slight difference in the correct pronunciation of each word, but in practice they sound virtually identical.

“Complement” has to do with completing, making whole, or improving something.  Here are two examples of it as a noun: “Those pumps are a perfect complement to her suit.”  “The baby was born with less than the usual complement of toes.”  And here it is as a verb: “This dusting of glitter complements the winter scene on the card better than a smattering of sequins would.”

“Compliment” is also a noun and a verb, and it concerns saying nice things or the things being said. Here, it’s a noun: “I know you said my eyes reminded you of a Brown Swiss cow’s, but I didn’t take that as a compliment.” (Note: She should have. Cows have lovely eyes.) And in this sentence, it’s a verb: “The next time he compliments her eyes, he’ll know better than to use a farm animal in his wording.”

It will probably help to remember that “complete” and “complement” both contain e’s but no i’s, and that “compliment” and “nice” each contain an i and an e.

A compliment about the gift you received is a good complement to any thank-you note you write.




Sneak a peek at that peak to pique your interest

Well, I suppose you know what this post is about now, don’t you. We’re descending into homophone hell today with that terrible trio, peek/peak/pique.

Peek means to look quickly, usually surreptitiously and often from some kind of hiding place (like behind a curtain or around a corner). “Take a peek and see if Mom’s home yet!” There are two e’s in “peek,” and two e’s in “see” and in “eye.” That might help you, as a mnemonic.

Peak means the top of a mountain, or (as a verb) to reach the highest point of (something). “The Dow peaked at 14963.82 today at close of trading.” (Okay, it hasn’t closed yet today, but that’s where it sits right now as I write this post. That’s also not a peak, since it’s off by over 100 points . . . but I digress. The usage is correct, even if my facts are outright wrong.) There’s an a in “peak,” and an a in “mountain,” too. There’s also an a in “stand,” and you can stand on top of a mountain peak. One of those is bound to work as a mnemonic for peak.

Pique means to stimulate or irritate, as in to pique one’s interest in something or to be piqued by something. “He was quickly piqued by her rudeness to the waiter.” There’s an i in “pique,” and there are i’s in both “stimulate” and “irritate.” See the pattern to my mnemonics? Of course you do.

So . . . offer your readers a sneak peek into your next work. Dream of the day your career reaches its peak, and hope that it doesn’t decline too swiftly for you to enjoy the ride. And, if it does tank, don’t be piqued.


Should you ask a disinterested friend for an opinion?

Today’s topic is another “by request,” this time from an author whose work I’ve edited. She wants a post about the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” I hear and obey. (This time, anyway.)

First let’s look at the prefixes. Both ultimately come from Latin. Dis- means “apart, away, asunder” and has “a privative, negative, or reversing force” on the words to which it is affixed. (You do remember, don’t you, that prefixes and suffixes are collectively referred to as “affixes,” right? Of course right.) Un- means “not.” That’s all. Just “not.”

Disinterested means having no interest in something in the sense of being unbiased, impartial (“apart from interest”). Judges are supposed to remain disinterested in the cases on which they are called to rule. They need to be on the outside, in order to make the kinds of decisions required by their position. I don’t think we can call them uninterested, though, because . . .

Uninterested means indifferent, not caring about or being bored by a subject (“not interested”). Think of being talked into going to an event about which you have no interest whatsoever (whether it’s the opera or a football game doesn’t matter). You’re uninterested in it, and aren’t likely to have a very good time.

An enlightening discussion of these two words and their current common usage is here. I’m sorry to tell you that the Cliff Notes version is: “Disinterested” is overtaking “uninterested.” I’m very unhappy about that; here’s another pair of words with a shade of difference in meaning that I think is worth preserving. I’ll spare you all my rant on the down-side of a living language and just say this is part and parcel of it — the loss of useful distinctions thanks to poor education and (yes, I’m going there) uninterest (not disinterest!) in the outcomes.

Here is another excellent breakdown (and I’ll say, I wrote my bit before I read this, so there).

And the answer to the title question? Yes, if you want an unbiased opinion from someone who doesn’t have a stake in the answer.

He may not have a stake, but he's got a gavel and he knows how to use it.
He may not have a stake, but he’s got a gavel and he knows how to use it.

Partaking in pedantry

I’m being up front about this one, folks. I’m being pedantic and I know it.

Once again we’re looking at the difference between formal usage and informal, or so it seems from what I can gather. The words in question are partake and participate.

Strictly speaking (you’ll notice I said “strictly”), to partake in something is to take a share of it. It’s most often used when speaking of a meal, or of something in which those who participate literally take something. (There’s that other word . . .)

To participate in something means to take part in it (not take a part of it). We participate in social media conversations. We participate in intramural sports. We participate in choral singing. Nothing’s being taken; we’re taking part, we’re spending time and energy.

The Encarta World English Dictionary shows “participate” as the third (last) possible meaning for the word “partake.” That means it’s used in that manner, but it’s not the best meaning/usage. “Partake,” however, does not appear anywhere in the definitions for “participate.” “To take part in” does not necessarily equate to “to take part of.” (Pesky prepositions and their nuances . . .)

Strictly speaking, the title of this blog post should be “Participating in pedantry.” I’m not taking anything away. I’m taking time and energy to compose it, proofread it, and post it. I’m participating in an activity. And, were I to be copyediting someone’s work and find “partake” used where “participate” is the better choice, I would note it as such in a comment. It really can matter. Not always, but often.

Now, I’m off to plan dinner, of which my husband and I will partake later tonight. (We will participate in the act of dining, and partake of the meal.)  Pedantry is optional, but available.

To boldly split infinitives any time we like!

How did I miss the grammatical connection to today’s anniversary of the premiere of “Star Trek” 47 years ago? HOW? ::strikes her best Kirk-esque dramatic pose::

So, all right. I’ve gotten that out of the way. Onward!

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Later it was updated, during ST:TNG (yes, I’m a fan; what tipped you off?): “To boldly go where no one has gone before” avoided the sexist language of the original. However, that split infinitive continued to be a thorn in the side of prescriptivists everywhere.

The thing is: It doesn’t matter.

That hoary warning about splitting infinitives so many of us heard throughout our elementary education (and perhaps even into our high-school and undergraduate years) is wrong. How did it come to be, then?


In Latin, it’s impossible to split an infinitive. The grammar simply doesn’t allow for it. Can’t be done. Over time, English grammarians tried to force the Latin grammar rules onto English, and came up with “don’t ever split an infinitive.” (What the result would be was never explained to my satisfaction. It’s not nearly as dangerous as, let’s say, splitting an atom.) To be honest, folks — it doesn’t matter. You can split infinitives if you like. You can not split them if you prefer. You can do both, as the situation calls for.

Also, as Patricia O’Conner points out in Woe Is I, occasionally the meaning changes when you don’t split that infinitive. “The landlord decided to flatly forbid singing.” Move flatly and see what happens. Go ahead, I’ll wait . . . See? It’s silly. (Of course, maybe the landlord’s a music teacher or someone with perfect pitch for whom off-key sounds cause physical pain. I don’t know. Still, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the meaning intended is to flatly forbid singing.)

It’s okay.

Nothing will explode if you split an infinitive. Seriously. They’re not like atoms.

You say employer, I say employee

“Okay, okay,” you say. “Pointing out typos and other copy editing failures is fun and all, but does any of this stuff really matter?”

Well, how about this? In Albuquerque, New Mexico, officials recently wrote up a proposal to increase the minimum wage and change how employees receive tips, hoping to get it on the November ballot. More than 12,000 people signed it, and the proposal seemed on its way to a slam-dunk victory, before someone noticed an error in a key section. Here’s the troublesome passage:

The measure would also require that starting in 2013, employers of tipped employees like waitresses and waiters be paid at least 45 percent of the minimum wage in cash wages from their employers.

See the problem? According to the wording above, who will be receiving the wages here? That’s right—the employers. Obviously, it should be the employees who will benefit from the change in minimum wage and tips, not their bosses. But that’s not what the proposal says. Councilor Ken Sanchez, one of the sponsors, said that if the proposal passes as is, lawsuits will probably be filed against the city.

As you might imagine, changing the wording of a government proposal after it’s been voted on involves just a bit of bureaucracy. Albuquerque city councilors are thinking about letting the current proposal appear on the ballot and also putting up another version with corrected wording. (Sure—that won’t be confusing to voters.)

Whatever happens, this is a good lesson in clear writing, good copy editing, and/or careful proofreading—take your pick.

(Here’s the source of this story.)



Let’s shoot the chute!

I have to say this isn’t a very common error, at least in my experience stalking the wild typo. In the coffee aisle (not isle) at the local big box department store, next to the pricey “designer coffee” with its own grinder, I spotted this sign.

Maybe it’s missing a comma?

In fact, this is such an uncommon example I stood there for a few seconds while my brain processed the information. I wasn’t in “editing mode” during this part of our trip, admittedly. Usually that mode is always engaged and running in the background. The delay rather unnerved me, truth to tell. However, once I realized what I was seeing, I snapped a photo for posterity (and you, kind readers) because it was just too good to pass up.

As for my caption: I did come up with a rather unconventional correction that could conceivably make sense. Kinda. A little. Okay, not really, but it amused me to think of it. “Slide bag behind, shoot to activate lever.” Nice comma fault, that way, isn’t it? A semicolon makes better sense.

Or, we could just–y’know–use the correct word. “Chute.”