A special kind of dyslexia

dyslexiaWords beginning with per- or pre- can tempt you to reverse letters, even if you don’t have dyslexia. Some cases seem related to regional pronunciations, and others are just laziness. A few of them are funny and, of course, you would never say them.

But others are probably lurking in your vocabulary somewhere and you might be surprised to learn their correct spellings and pronunciations.

How often have you heard someone say this:

  • I need to get my perscription refilled. (prescription)
  • This course has some perequisites. (prerequisites)
  • Do whatever you like – it’s your perogative. (prerogative)
  • Who can perdict the winner? (predict)
  • There’s a perponderance of corruption in the city council. (preponderance)
  • I just love blackberry perserves. (preserves)

And the reverse, in writing as well as in speaking:

  • The group will preform a Beethoven symphony. (perform)
  • The runners were covered with prespiration. (perspiration)
  • Line A must be prependicular to Line B. (perpendicular)
  • If you presist in this behavior, you will be punished. (persist)
  • I can’t help it – I’m so preturbed about the situation! (perturbed)
  • What are you – a prevert? (pervert)

More of these reversals happen in pronunciation than in writing, but I’ve seen several of them written. By people who should know better. Some could be typos, and a few will not trigger a Spellchecker alert because they are legitimate words. Preform, for example, is a word. It just doesn’t mean the same thing as perform. If you’re the least bit uncertain about a pre- or per- word, you might want to look it up before using it in a business presentation, a document, or even an email or Facebook post.

If you perfer to be preceived as percise, prehaps I can presuade you to take percautions before you become a prepetrator of this less-than-prefect practice, placing you in a percarious position … premanently.

But if you’re determined to insult someone, I must admit that “PREE-vert” has a deliciously nasty ring to it.

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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 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homophone].

A quirk of English that people who write newspaper headlines are supposed to know about. [http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/isaacs/client_edit/Headlines.html].

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 [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/insight].
  • 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 [http://www.thefreedictionary.com/oversight].
  • Oversite – (construction) a layer of concrete on the ground, below a slab of flooring [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/oversite].
  • 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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Are we getting dumber?

synonym rollsStatistics show that American children are falling behind their counterparts in other countries. Math scores, language skills, knowledge of science and history … our future would seem to be in the hands of the ill-prepared and under-educated. “They” say our youngsters’ minds have been so numbed by video games and junk food that we’re all doomed.


As adults, we’d like to think our generations were smarter. If that’s true, why do we seek help from eight-year-olds to program our iPhones and DVRs? Perhaps children are becoming smart in different ways.

People have always poked fun at village idiots. But Facebook, Twitter, and online comment boxes provide access to millions of them with a single click, swipe, or tap. It’s possible that Autocorrect was responsible for some of these, but Twitter has given us:

  • I can never pay attention when I do my homework I must have 80HD….
  • Every year we learn about the hollow cost in school….
  • Rosetta Stone did not sit on that bus for you to be….
  • Ima give em a minute then I tell em good writtens….

OK, so these comments demonstrate a shocking lack of spelling, grammar, history, and common sense. Maybe it was always out there, but we just couldn’t see it. The Internet is a super-magnifying reflective surface. You think you look pretty good, ready to walk out the door. Then you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror with every enlarged wrinkle, spot, and imperfection, and want to go back to bed.

Maybe our memories are a little airbrushed because we saw what we wanted to see. Schools emphasized math, spelling, and other basic skills. No calculators, spelling checkers, or instant encyclopedias for us! We learned to work square roots by hand and compose paragraphs of more than 140 characters. Then again, we didn’t need instant mental recall of invisible decision trees involving the nested processes and hierarchical operations for hundreds of apps, steps, and key sequences.

Still, it would be nice if every child learned to spell and construct a decent sentence. It might not make them smarter, but it would help with their selfie steam.

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Giddy governors glimpsing groundhogs

groundhogIt’s that time of year, and it’s happening again. Just as it does every year, almost as if no one remembers that it’s happened – just this way – many times before. No, it’s not the movie Groundhog Day, it’s the actual Groundhog Day. When important-looking officials in top hats gather in Punksatawney, Pennsylvania, to witness the appearance (or not) of the worst attempt at alliteration ever … Punxsatawney Phil.

Apparently someone who did not learn about poetic devices from Miss Georgia Moore figured two words starting with the same letter qualified as alliterative. Edgar Allan Poe is somewhere cursing the whole thing. Problem is, when followed by the letter H, the letter P sounds like an F. The idea is to create a clever sound repetition that captures the reader’s attention and creates a mood. For all their efforts, the folks in Punxsatawney might as well have called their groundhog Larry.

Alliteration can be fun and it’s useful in naming things. For example, a dog show (Canine Capers) or a school book fair (Reading Rodeo). But when overdone, it can sound self-conscious and belabored. Anyone old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and his “nattering nabobs of negativism?”

Bad alliteration can also sound a little too precious. I remember a nursery school chain with a fleet of big yellow buses labeled Kiddie Kastle, Kiddie Kollege, and Kiddie Kampus. Not only is it cheating to change the spelling, but what kind of school deliberately teaches children to misspell castle, college, and campus … or anything, for that matter?

Just remember that alliteration is more about sound than spelling. But if you’re naming an event, please don’t call it a Psychic Pseminar or a Writers’ Wrendezvous.

You know, the groundhog folks could have solved the whole thing by moving the festivities to Philadelphia …

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Just a couple of letters

Abraham Lincoln (9. february, 1864)Like Venice, English might be in a state of elegant decay … sinking a couple of millimeters per year. Advocates for “doing what the people do” insist that, just because many people are slovenly in their habits, we should embrace their descent into anarchy. Proponents of trendy clichés, uptalk, and vocal fry whine that any sort of criticism is an attack on their freedom of speech.

To them I say, “Meh—whateveeeer? Like, I’m so over iiiiit?”

The most disturbing trend is the tolerance for words that are clearly wrong, but close to the word that would make sense. Maybe just a letter or two off, but wrong nevertheless. The reader is responsible for making sense of the nonsensical,  because the writer is careless or lazy.

Here are three examples I’ve recently seen in print:

Newspaper: We have quite a contingency of street people in our town …

Contingency means uncertain of occurrence, dependent on outside conditions. The writer meant contingent (group forming a part of a larger group).

Magazine: This film is gardenering attention …

It’s growing plants? No, it is garnering (gathering or collecting) attention.

Internet article: A video clip of a legislator, speaking about his fight for a bill he sponsored, followed by an article about the video. The article quoted him as saying, “I won’t be detoured from my goal …”

In the video, the man had said, “I won’t be deterred …” (discouraged, restrained). It’s possible that the reporter didn’t know the word deterred. Or maybe his Autocorrect was responsible. In any case, it was a misquote and someone should have noticed before it went public.

Thank goodness some of us were required to memorize great prose in elementary school. In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln:

Floor store and severed tears ago our feathers bought fjords on this cotton net, canoe station conserved in liver tea, and dead dictated truth or preposition that almonds are crated sequel.

You knew what he meant, right?

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