Lexical Vexations

Lee requested this classic lexical vexation, one that trips up the best of us from time to time. Thanks, Lee!

their adj. the possessive form of the pronoun they.

there 1. adv. a word used to designate a location that is at a distance, near or far, from the one using the word. 2. pronoun used to introduce the existence of something (ex. There is truth in what she says).

they’re a contraction of the words they and are .

Words in the Wild: They’re going to their cabin in the woods this weekend, and they’re hoping their nosy neighbours won’t be there.

This trio of homophones is just as vexing as the tricky its vs. it’s. You’ve probably noticed that we don’t need to constantly stop people in conversation to ask which of the above spellings they just spoke. That’s because the rest of their words give us all the clues we need to know which meaning was intended. So when we switch to the written word, it’s easy for a writer to choose the wrong one of these spellings. Even a seasoned grammarian who knows these spellings inside and out will mix these words up from time to time. And that’s okay…catching these sorts of oversights is exactly what proofreading is for, after all.

In writing as in speaking, we don’t really need the correct spelling of these words to make sense of what people have written. It’s only tradition and habit that require these different spellings at all. But now that we’ve grown used to the visual distinction between these words, it can confuse us when it’s gone. When a writer chooses the wrong spelling, it can, at least briefly, send readers down the garden path before they find their way to the intended meaning. Try to quickly read these incorrect uses of their, there, and they’re to see if you notice the extra work they require:

It was their that I found the lost kitten.

There’s is the brown sedan.

There at odds with they’re upstairs neighbours these days.

It makes reading a lot easier on readers when we spell these words correctly (and we lose fewer points on grammar tests, too), so I hope this blog post helps you choose your theres, theirs, and they’res wisely.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Lexical Vexations

lightening v. inflected form of the verb to lighten, as of weight, illumination, or colour.

lightning n. the discharge of electricity in the atmosphere.

Words in the Wild: The horizon had been lightening by degrees for the past half hour when the storm blew through and lightning flashed, illuminating the city.

The contributor of this photo of lightning striking the CN Tower is Sam Javanrouh. The photo is copyrighted but also licenced for further reuse.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Sometimes you just need a hyphen. You really do. Here’s proof:

He was a big-city worker, a cold-case officer with slicked-back hair.

is very different from

He was a big city worker, a cold case officer with slicked back hair.

In the first case we have an urbanite with a sleek coiffure who works on cold cases . In the second we have a large, chilly case officer with very tidy back hair who works for the city.

Are you convinced those hyphens are worth it?

Now, it isn’t necessary to hyphenate every compound adjective. When only one meaning is possible, those hyphens aren’t really necessary. This is the part where you use your discretion.

Sometimes you’ll see that a missing hyphen could radically change your message. Sometimes you’ll see that, although it won’t really change your message, those hyphens will prevent your reader from backtracking and rereading your sentence. Sometimes they won’t make any difference at all.

In my view, accuracy and ease of reading are both equally important. Of course I want the right message, but what good will it do if I chase off readers with hard-to-read prose? For that reason I tend to err on the side of caution in my use of hyphens.

When not to hyphenate:

When the adjective comes after the thing it describes: The hyphen is really only needed when the compound adjective comes before the thing it describes: while slicked back hair is confusing hair that’s slicked back isn’t.

When you have an adverb ending in -ly: Likewise, hyphens should be left out of any compounds formed with an adverb ending in -ly.  There’s nothing confusing about an utterly baffling instruction manual (except the manual itself, of course!).

Hyphen comic by xkcd.com


Guest Post

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Stephanie. You can find her over at theoldyoungadult.blogspot.com. This is her first flowchart. Be nice.

Have you ever been frustrated by the lack of proper spelling and grammar on the Internet? It is a dangerous, scary world out there. Venture away from the Word Blog for just one second and you might (will) find spelling errors, an astonishing lack of respect for capital letters, and inconsistencies galore. You will also probably develop a prominent desire to [sic]. I understand.

So when should you relax? When is it okay to stop using the shift key? Don’t worry. Just print out this chart, keep it handy, and watch all your Internet word-usage insecurities disappear.

Click on the flowchart to see a larger version of it.


Txtng: The gr8 db8

by Heather

Recommended Read

Crystal, David. Txtng: The gr8 db8. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008. [ISBN-13: 978-0-19-957133-8]

One of the most notable things about texting is the impressive furor that has accompanied its meteoric rise in popularity over the past ten years or so.  David Crystal recounts some of the many dire warnings texting has occassioned, quoting John Humphrys, for instance, who writes in the Daily Mail online that texters are:

vandals who are doing to our language what Gengis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.

Hyperbole aside, people are understandably worried about what this new form of communication and orthography might mean for the future of our language. There’s no question that past changes in genres and media—from sonnets to hip-hop lyrics, from scrolls to eBooks—have had real and lasting consequences for language. It’s only sensible to wonder how texting might change us. And for those of you who, unlike John Humphrys, are still making up your minds about texting, Crystal’s book is a great place to learn more. And I think you’ll find that your mind will be put at ease. [click to continue…]


Welcome to the new year, fellow logophiles. I hope that your 2009 was chockful of new vocabulary, fantastic friends, great reads, fascinating conversations, wholesome fun, and above all, words! And, of course, I wish you a 2010 full of more of the same.

So to start the year off right, here’s a roundup of my favourite online word games. Have fun, and watch you don’t put your “i” out.


Crack the secret code and win the game.


Do you know where that word came from? Find out here.


For every grammar question you answer correctly, 10 grains of rice are given to those in need.


Quick! Build words before the board fills up.


Strategically build words to maximize your points.


Up word fix the up mixed. Sort out the syntax to win.


Test your vocabulary and help feed those in need with each correct answer.


Build words by unscrambling the letters.

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I spent last weekend mingling with 200 or so other editors at the Editors’ Association of Canada’s 2009 conference. It’s very rare that you’d find so many of us in one place  since editors on the whole tend toward being a retiring lot. Our solitary toiling over thick manuscripts and flickering computer screens doesn’t always help us to get out and about much, either. But for a few magic days downtown Toronto was inundated with delightfully persnickety logophiles.

I met many impressive people and attended many delightful talks last weekend, but in the interests of keeping a short story only medium long, I’m going to give you succinct overviews of my three favourite presentations:

  1. James Harbeck, the multitalented editor and linguist, asked and answered the question every spelling-bee contestant, ESL student, and frankly every speaker of the English language has asked at least once: “What’s up with English spelling?”
    Seriously, as much as I foolishly love its baffling idiosyncracies, the English language really is an M.C. Escher stairwell of a language. If you’re at all curious about how Dutch scribes, the alphabet, Jonathan Swift, regional dialects,  revolutions, dictionaries, great vowel shifts, and, of course, the French have monkeyed with English spelling, I recommend  you head to James’s blog where you’ll find a complete transcript of his excellent presentation. (And while you’re there don’t miss his word tasting notes—they’ll make you want a heaping plate of words for dinner tonight.)
  2. Andrea Zanin, freelance editor and professional sex geek, presented “Sexing the Language: Editing for Sexual Minorities” to help editors (1) engage respectfully and accurately with the continuously shifting vernacular used by diverse groups of sexual minorities and (2) recognize and eliminate biased and loaded expressions and assumptions about sexual minorities.
    I can’t possibly summarize the breadth of information in her talk here, nor match her presentation’s energy, so instead I will repeat the 3 guiding rules she provided us: be respectful, be accurate, and, whenever you don’t know if the language you’re using is respectful and accurate, just ask for Pete’s sake.
    Here’s a link to a great article by Andrea: “hello, sir—i mean, ma’am”: trans etiquette for dummies. Check it out!
  3. Nora Young, host of CBC’s Spark and keynote speaker extraordinaire, spoke to us about ethics in the quickly changing landscape of communication technology. She compared the cultural shift occasioned by web 2.0 technology to the advent of direct-dial phone calls.
    Just as pioneer phonecallers once had to give some serious thought about how they would announce themselves to the person answering their call—should I say hello or ahoy?—Nora argues that we as pioneering web 2.0 users are having to think hard about how we use and communicate information on the web.
    While the internet signals the end of information scarcity (at least for those of us with access to it), she asks us, what is the quality of that information? How carefully do we evaluate it’s accuracy? And to what extent are we exposed to information that challenges our assumptions when we gravitate to the news and views we want to read? [click to continue…]

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