Monday, February 15, 2010

Grammar Nazi Says it's Getting Grizzly Out There

Sad, grisly, grizzly bear is sad

Grammar Nazi here, just to say I’m not sure I can take it any more.

Homophones. Within the last five minutes, I’ve witnessed two examples of grievous misuse of homophones. And whether one is a peasant or a king, there’s no getting away from screwing up these soundalike (but not meaningalike) words.

The first is an old hat in the Gallery of Homophone Screw-Ups, the venerable grisly versus grizzly.

Grisly, of course, has the wider meaning of the two words. Good ol’ American Heritage tells us that grisly means horrifying, repugnant, or gruesome. This word as an interesting etymology. It has its roots in the Germanic ghrei or gris, which means “to frighten,” or “to grate on the mind.” Grisly certainly wears its roots well.

Grizzly simply means grayish or flecked with gray, and is most often seen in the company of the word bear – though you’ll have to agree that encounters with grizzly bears do tent to grate on the mind as well. (I wouldn’t know; I’ve only been in close proximity with a black bear, an event that certainly hasn’t faded over time).

If you get it wrong, don’t worry. So did George Ord, who formally named the grizzly bear in 1815.

Don’t worry, but don’t be a chronic screw-up. Use the words correctly.

The next homophonic mix-up is far more likely to grate on the mind, because the words involved – through and threw – have nothing to do with each other, aside from pronunciation.

Threw, we all know, is the past tense of throw. Throw has its old English roots in thrawan, meaning to turn or twist. Considering the turning, twisting motions we go through to throw something, this word adaptation is apt.

Through, however, has its roots in the old English thuruh, which means to cross over, pass through, or overcome.

But using threw in the place of through – this is the most common mix-up involving these two words; only once have I seen the mix-up go the other direction – dashes these old English-derived words to pieces.

Taxes, they say, are threw the roof. And that always makes my jaw drop threw the floor.

It’s laziness. It’s spoken English trying to become written English without knowing the rules. Threw is a much more phonic spelling of the sounds in the word through than through ever could be. I know we live in an age where the battle lies between those who argue whether we change our language or whether our language changes us, but come on, folks. We can and ought to shape our language to a certain extent, but that certain extent should not lead us to look like illiterate boobs. Use through when you mean through, even if you have to think about how to spell it out.

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