By Pam McCutcheon
There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to the proper usage of some words in the English language, 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 highlight a few of the errors I see most often.
I had my dog spaded.
Ouch! This sentence says that you allowed someone to use a spade on your dog, which I don’t think is your intention (though the poor dog may not be able to tell the difference in the pain level). The confusion arises because the present tense of the verb meaning to neuter a female is “spay.” The past tense is “spayed,” but it sounds like “spade” when we say it out loud, so people seem to want to put an extra “ed” on the end of it when they write it in past tense. Properly written, it would be: I had my dog spayed.
She had to reign in her temper.
I’ve seen this mistake quite a bit lately. To “reign” means to rule or exercise the power of a monarch. So, “to reign in” her temper means she was trying to rule inside it. It almost makes sense, but what you really mean to use is a homonym. “Rein in” refers to pulling in the reins (as with a horse) to put her temper in check and control it. Since that’s what you really meant, write it this way: She had to rein in her temper.
That’s a hairbrained idea.
I saw this in a published book the other day and knew it was misspelled, but I didn’t know why, so I looked up the origin of the expression. It seems folks used to believe that rabbits went crazy during the mating season, which is where the expression “mad as a March hare” originated. And, if a person did something that seemed insane, they called them “harebrained,” meaning they had the brain of a crazy bunny. The correct way to write this is: That’s a harebrained idea.
If you’re writing about a phone call in your novel, be careful not to make a common point of view (POV) mistake. We’ve all seen the TV shows and movies where someone is on the phone and we hear only one side of the conversation, such as:
Edith answered the phone. “Hi, John . . . What kind of trouble? . . . I’ll be right there.”
However, it’s different in a novel. If we’re in someone’s POV, we’re seeing and hearing everything they do. So, if we’re in Edith’s head and she’s speaking on the phone, she can hear both sides of the conversation, so the author should write the conversation this way:
Edith answered the phone. “Hi, John.”
“I’m in trouble,” John said with a rush.
“What kind of trouble?”
“Never mind that. Can you pick me up now at Monica’s?”
“I’ll be right there.”
If you want to keep the other side of the conversation secret from the reader a while longer for some reason, you need to either write the scene in a third person’s POV who can hear only Edith, or, if you need to keep it in Edith’s POV, summarize the phone call instead of showing us the dialogue:
Edith answered the phone and, shocked to hear what John had to say, she rushed out the door.
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.
Reign and rein are constant problems for me, because, as you say, reigning over your temper sounds almost sensible. Since I know it’s a problem, I check in a dictionary every time.
Another homonym I see misused a lot is bare/bear, which sometimes creates a very odd (and wrong) picture in my imagination.
I’m spotting more errors in traditionally published books these days, as writers seem to leave it their publishers to sort out their mistakes, which they don’t. Self-published authors generally know that they have to take care and do.
Both should be using copy editors, but no one can catch everything, unfortunately.
That was very helpful. Thank you.
I believed that “reign” and “rein” were homophones, not homonyms.