By Pam McCutcheon
This is a new monthly column that I hope will help writers with some of the more confusing aspects of the English language. There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to the proper usage of some words, and many mistakes even make it onto the page, especially in these days of self-publication and rushing into print. As a freelance editor, writer, and avid book consumer, I see a lot of them. So, each month, I will highlight a few of the errors I see most often. Homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings) are the most prevalent, so let’s start with a few of them.
She waited with baited breath.
What’s wrong with this sentence? Nothing? Uh, look again. To “bait” means to lure something into a trap. Is she really trying to lure some unsuspecting creature with her breath? I suppose that’s possible, if she’s some sort of fantasy creature. But if you mean she’s a mundane human holding her breath in anticipation of something, the word you want to use is “bate” which means to restrain or hold back. The correct way to say this is: She waited with bated breath.
He was offered the roll of a lifetime.
This mistake conjures up some strange images in my mind. What exactly was he offered? A roll in the hay? An awesome dinner roll? Breathtaking acrobatics? “Roll” has several meanings, but none of them fit the context of this sentence without unintended humor. However, “role” refers to a character, function, or part to play. If you are talking about an actor who was offered a juicy part in a movie, what you should say is: He was offered the role of a lifetime.
His boss made him tow the line.
The word “tow” means to pull or drag along behind you, so this sentence implies that his boss made him haul a line around, as if he were trailing a rope behind him.
To use this correctly, it’s important to understand where this phrase originated. “Toe the line” comes from the early 1800s when officials at foot races required runners to put their toe on the starting line before commencing. Thus, “toe the line” means conforming to the officials’ orders, and came to be used that way for more than just races. So, if you meant that his boss made him obey the rules, the proper way to write this is: His boss made him toe the line.
Pam McCutcheon is a freelance editor, writer, and speaker who pens romantic comedy, fantasy short stories, and nonfiction books for writers under her own name, and YA urban fantasy as Parker Blue. Her books include the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis and The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite). Learn more about her at pammc.com.