Prose Pointers

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. It’s very difficult to proof your own writing, as I know all too well. As a freelance editor, writer, and avid book consumer, I see a lot of these mistakes. So, each month, I highlight a few of the errors I see most often.

 

He had a fowl taste in his mouth.

Well, if the author meant that the taste in his mouth was that of roasted bird, as shown in the picture to the right, it would be correct.

However, the author meant that the taste was repulsive or disgusting, so he should have written it this way: He had a foul taste in his mouth.

picture1

 

I learned a new word—“eggcorn.” This is a word or phrase that sounds like another and is misheard and mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase.  The term was coined by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003, and is so called because someone misheard the word “acorn” as “eggcorn.” Lately, I’ve read some eggcorns in books that jerked me out of the flow of the prose. I thought I’d share them with you so you don’t make the same mistakes (paraphrased to remove character names and protect the guilty):

 

For all intensive purposes, girlfriend, let’s not forget you also did a chunk of his work.”

Intensive purposes? Meaning casual and superficial purposes need not apply? This mistake comes from incorrectly hearing a common phrase said aloud. The correct phrase is “intents and purposes”—it means for all practical purposes, and The Oxford English Dictionary shows this originated in law as “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.” So, the author should have written it this way: “For all intents and purposes, girlfriend, let’s not forget you also did a chunk of his work.”

 

 

In a back alley in one of the seedier neighborhoods of New York City, one must make due.

“Due” means what is owed to someone, so this sentence actually says the character had to make something that was owed to someone else. Huh?

However, she meant to say that the character had to get along with what he had available, or “make do.” Here’s how it should have been written: In a back alley in one of the seedier neighborhoods of New York City, one must make do.

 

It didn’t matter what he said; it was a mute point.

Hmm, mute means silent, so this eggcorn doesn’t even make sense to me. If he said it aloud, it couldn’t be a “mute” point, now could it? The word should be “moot.” Since this is a word we don’t often use elsewhere in conversation, it’s worth understanding where it comes from.

In ancient times, a moot was a periodic meeting held to decide judicial matters, so a “moot” point would be one that needn’t be discussed because it should be held for the moot. It has evolved to mean any point of discussion that doesn’t need to be discussed, usually because the point has already been decided or is irrelevant. In this case, the author should have said: It didn’t matter what he said; it was a moot point.

 

Pam Jean Jacket small

 

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), now available in digital form. Learn more about her at pammc.com.

2 comments

  • In this day and age, where brevity has reached new extremes in the interest of texting, people sometimes seem to have lost the ability to write, and at times even to speak properly. With the passing of Leonard Cohen, a master of words, we suffer the loss of another great wordsmith. Hopefully we’ll all immerse ourselves in his words and music for a few days, and thus become inspired as writers to step up our game again.
    The examples of ‘eggcorns’ you’ve given us are so bad as to seem almost unbelievable. As a self-published author (happily shortlisted for the 2015 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize), I know the value of editing and proof reading. I am self-published, which doesn’t meaning doing every step by myself. I hire a professional editor (with expertise in my genre), and then finish up by hiring a proof-reader (not to forget the professional cover art designer, and interior designer). They are all unique and necessary skill-sets; ones I don’t have.
    Keep up the good work Pam, in pointing out these ‘eggcorns’ – hopefully the message will get across – it’s easy as a writer to make mistakes in the flow of creativity – so get an editor – the whole self-publishing industry will benefit from higher quality work.

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