Sight, site, cite

oversiteYes, that’s a real headline. What’s wrong with it?

Sight, site, and cite—two nouns and a verb, all with identical pronunciations but different meanings. They’re called homophones [].

A quirk of English that people who write newspaper headlines are supposed to know about. [].

To set the record straight, here are some definitions:

  • Sight – the ability to see or something that is seen
  • Site – a physical or Internet location
  • Cite – to quote a source as proof or confirmation (notice anything about this post?)

A person with the power of sight can see a sight, perhaps a building site or a website, then cite a published picture to verify its existence.

Some of these variations have nothing to do with the root words:

  • Insight – an intuitive understanding of a person or thing [].
  • In-site (note hyphen) – within a particular Internet location
  • Incite – to encourage violent or unlawful behavior

If a programmer does not have insight into the peculiarities of in-site software navigation, the resulting frustration could incite users to write nasty reviews.

Other variations have distant ties to the original root meanings:

  • Oversight – watchful or responsible care. Also a failure to notice something [].
  • Oversite – (construction) a layer of concrete on the ground, below a slab of flooring [].
  • Overcite – to excessively quote footnotes, sources, or links to outside articles (what kind of moron would do that?)

Despite careful oversight of the construction process, an oversight can occur, allowing a flaw in the oversite and leading to a lawsuit in which the attorney will inevitably overcite the case.

If you’re not talking about a layer of concrete on the ground under the subflooring, oversite is the wrong word. (See newspaper headline illustration. It should have said oversight.)

If you’re still reading, congratulations!

By now you’re also painfully aware of the single correct usage of the word overcite. The user-hostile1 practice of overciting infuriates and annoys the reader2. It reduces readability to almost zero3.

1 User-hostile is the opposite of user-friendly.
2 That would be you.
3 Well, not absolutely zero because you are still reading

But unless you react to them by repeatedly pounding your head on a slab of concrete under the floor, neither oversite nor overcite has anything to do with concussions.

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Foddities, quoibles, and irks

Dried acorn with leavesAlthough English grammar and usage usually mean serious business, the idiosyncrasies of our language provide endless fodder for entertainment. Funny mistakes in speech or writing make us laugh. We’re willing to be amused at the expense of others, but did you know that several types of mistakes have serious names? Someone actually sat down, identified, and categorized these errors. Here are four of the most common:

The eggcorn (not acorn) is almost an example of itself. It’s a misspelled word that sounds like the word you intended—a homophone. For example, “The gym was so crowded I had to weight in line” (instead of wait). Eggcorns are most often committed by people who are careless, don’t know the right word, or depend too much on Spellchecker. And, no, eggcorns don’t grow on oak trees.

These happen when listeners misinterpret what they hear. The best examples of mondegreens are song lyrics. For instance the Beatles classic, “Hey dude” or the country song, “Donuts make my brown eyes blue.”

A malapropism substitutes a wrong word for one that sounds similar. Norm Crosby, a comedian popular in the 1970s, made a career on such quips as, “I went to the tailor because my pants needed an altercation.” Yogi Berra, famous for his malapropisms, was probably being more clever than careless when he said, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.”

To make a spoonerism, mix up the sounds in a familiar phrase. It’s sometimes called a slip of the tongue or, to parody itself, a tip of the slung. Examples:

  • A lack of pies (pack of lies)
  • One swell foop (fell swoop)
  • Is the bean dizzy? (dean busy)
  • Goldybear and the Three Locks (Goldilocks and the Three Bears)

The pratfalls that characterized comedians like Dick Van Dyke and Chevy Chase were funny because they made them look like accidents. Good eggcorns, mondegreens, malapropisms, and spoonerisms are best when discovered in the wild, like rare bird species. If you’re tempted to use any of these devices in your writing for humorous effect, be forewarned: creating them on purpose is counter-intuitive and harder than it looks.

It’s like saying:

I’m working very hard to become carefree and spontaneous!

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