Before I begin, a plug: Go see the “About” page of this blog if you’d like to know about some of the books I’ve already edited. They’re all well worth a look (and even a purchase if you’re so inclined). I’m also open to suggestions on the overall changes in the look-and-feel of this growing enterprise.

And now for today’s little lesson: Let’s just continue with a few more commonly confused “homophones” (still too danged muggy outside to think much right now):

  1. I’ll begin with one I just saw yesterday, where someone referred to a condition as causing “shear terror” in everyone around them. The correct wording would be “sheer terror”; I suspect this mistake is in part caused by the theater play “Shear Madness” (which is now billed as “the longest-running off-Broadway play ever,” but that’s not important here….)

The problem is, that play (a comedic “whodunit” thriller, where the audience becomes part of the show) takes place in a beauty salon—hence the cute play on words, between “shears” (another word for scissors) and “sheer” (meaning “utter,” “absolute,” “unmitigated” etc.).

In short, you might giggle with sheer delight, or shriek with sheer terror, and so on; however, the only time “shear madness” comes into play is when sharp scissors are involved. (Note: there are also at least three other meanings of the word “sheer”: as a noun, as an adverb and as a verb. Fortunately, this “spelling” confusion rarely occurs when we’re speaking of fabric-texture (sheer silk), falling off cliffs (sheer drop), or boat-performance (sheering left), so I’ll leave those explorations to the curious.)

  1. Next up is how “tenets” often becomes “tenants” in some writings. For clarity’s sake, just remember this:

Although “tenet” (A principle or belief, as in a religion or philosophy) is often confused with “tenant,” unlike the latter it does not pay rent to a landlord!

The reason for the confusion is of course how the words are pronounced; if one only hears them, they sound nearly the same. It’s by seeing them written down that you begin to grasp the difference; so now that you’ve seen then written down you should never make the mistake again… J

  1. One more and I’ll stop for today. I don’t see this often, but even in some printed newspapers it’s shown up: a reference to someone as being “self-depreciating”….

My first question to the writer is, “what is this person, a walking savings-bond?” The word they’re searching for, of course, is self-deprecating, which means, “Tending to undervalue oneself and one’s abilities.” Oddly enough, this term is often used by a journalist writing up an interview as a positive attribute of the subject, since modesty is so highly prized when discovered in a celebrity.

Meanwhile, in the psychological world, it’s considered a “basic character flaw or personality defect, one of seven possible “chief features” adopted in adolescence to protect the self at the level of false personality. . . . Self-deprecation means belittling yourself, or running yourself down, in the eyes of others. It is a drive to make yourself small or even invisible.” (That source goes on to say, “As with the opposite chief feature of arrogance, self-deprecation is a way of manipulating others’ perceptions of yourself in order to avoid taking a ‘hit’ to your self-esteem. In this case, however, the basic strategy is to ‘get in first’—to launch a preemptive attack on your own failings before anyone else can do so.”)

So I guess the real bottom-line on this one is that these writers should go for a different term when they want to show some high-dollar celeb is not quite as egotistical as most when being interviewed; perhaps “self-effacing” might be a better choice.

In the process they’d also avoid the chance that some too-fast typesetter might add an “i” in the midst of their fancy word, and thereby ruin the meaning they were going for.

All for now; see you soon!