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DEAR READER: Misused words sound sour notes

Friday, November 16, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Copy editors could, and sometimes do, argue all day about grammar and word usage as the war between descriptivists and prescriptivists rages wildly. But, with the exception of few variations, words are either exactly right or exactly wrong. 

Errors, with their clunky dissonance, creep in, despite editors' efforts to create symphonic harmony. 

This jarring noise is so aptly illustrated in one of the Show Me the Errors contest submissions for October. Ben Weir, a Missouri School of Journalism graduate, posted this correction on the article about how Kentucky was preparing for its football matchup against Missouri: "Bowl birth? Don't think so ... how about a bowl berth." 

Right you are, Ben.

The delicious irony of Ben's submission is that on the day he posted his correction, I was teaching aspiring copy editors at an American Copy Editors Society's Editing Boot Camp in Albuquerque, N.M. One session at the workshop focused on Words Frequently Misused.

Word pairs cited as frequently troublesome were: any time/anytime; bemused/amused; every day/everyday; flaunt/flout; historic/historical; lead/led; loose/lose; pore/pour; rein/reign/rain; stationary/stationery; and staunch/stanch.

And, of course, there are the more common sour notes: it's/its; too/to/two; their/there/they're; your/you're; peel/peal; and peek/peak.

Knowing the difference between the paired words is something you just have to get into your brain. Some folks get it; others seemingly never will. If you find yourself lost, though, help abounds.

Beyond your favorite dictionary, there is "Working With Words" by Brian S. Brooks, James L. Pinson and Jean Gaddy Wilson. It's a masterpiece.

I recently added "The Wrong Word Dictionary" by Dave Dowling to my reference shelves. Among others, he offers up gilt/guilt; millenary/millinery; prescribe/proscribe; and troupe/troop. 

Thanks to a recently unearthed sales receipt that described my purchase as a $12.88 "neckless," I want to add neckless/necklace to the mix. (Giddiness reigns as I ponder how a neckless person would wear a necklace.)

I feel confident that the participants in the October Show Me the Errors contest know the different meanings and correct usage of the words in these lists.

In October, there were 12 participants and 23 corrections for the contest. Jim Terry, a professor at Stephens College, submitted 10 of those error reports and was also the winner of the drawing.

He'll be receiving a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

You, too, can join. If you see or even just suspect an error in an article on ColumbiaMissourian.com, simply click the entry button at the bottom and submit your suggestion. At the end of the month, a winner is selected from a drawing of all the entrants' names. Maybe you'll earn a berth in the Show Me the Errors rankings.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She is looking forward to a new book by Bill Walsh, author of "Lapsing Into a Comma" and "The Elephants of Style." Due out in June 2013, "Yes, I Could Care Less" is subtitled "How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk."  Sounds like good advice.


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