Monthly Archives: May 2013

Coherency: Just sayin’…

gibberish-cartoonIs it just my imagination, or is written English slipping in quality, even among writers?  Is it that less attention is paid to the end results than to the actual “getting it out there to be read by others”?  I just returned to my blog after taking a jaunt around WordPress Land; the blogs I visited, I went to with good will, interested to see what others are thinking and writing about.  But I have to admit I couldn’t understand half of what was written.  Half.  Now, I’m an English teacher and writer and all that, and yes, I’ve been living in a non-English speaking environment for a quarter of a century.  But has it really deteriorated to the point of not only miscommunication, but of downright gibberish at times?  I’m not looking down my nose at those who are trying to communicate (something); I am simply throwing out this question into the cosmos and asking if I’m the only one who’s noticed this?

Where is the satisfaction of a job well done in a sentence that looks like it was fed through BabbleFish a few dozen times?  Where is the pride in having written something well, communicated the heart of the matter, and allowed others a glimpse into the mind of the writer without confusing them with poor spelling, syntax and punctuation?  I find myself editing more than reading sometimes, and that does not bode well for the writer.  As a writer I take my job seriously, in all its aspects, from research, to presentation.  If we as writers don’t set a good example to follow, how will the next generation know right from wrong, or rite from wong?

A few simple rules I follow:

1) Read your text aloud before you hit that “post” button.

2) Have a good dictionary available (such as, and check those words you’re unsure of.

3) Do NOT trust a spell-checker!  Learn the basic rules of spelling, punctuation and syntax, and if you’re still not sure, double-check online with reliable sources.

Let’s swim against the tide of laziness and stagnation in writing; let’s expand our vocabulary instead of relying on the same ol’ same ol’; let’s set an example of good writing, even though it may not be perfect every time.




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A Dose of Shakespeare

“Cowards die many times beshakespeare1fore their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once.”

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Cover Art, Cover Art, Where Art Thou

For those of us who are writers, you know what I mean when I say that we’d MUCH rather spend our time writing, creating, moulding, researching characters and plots, and basically ANYTHING else than the dusty technical nuts & bolts of publication.  With the hurdles one has to leap in the publishing world, it’s no wonder that e-books are becoming THE path of choice.  I spent those required months writing cover letters, creating packages to agents, etc. only to get those letters back that said, “Great ideas!  We loved it!  But…” when they already have clients in that genre, they’re not about to take on competition for them…  So like many others, I’ve chosen the route of Kindle.  I’ve got one book ready to go, and another first draft just completed, as well as no less than 5 other projects at various stages of completion.  A meeting with an artist proved fruitless to my purpose; he knows art, but not all the aspects of doing cover art.  I’ve worked with graphic artists for album covers and artwork, but I’m not prepared to invest several thousand at a time when I’ve got dozens in my future… so…

That’s where comes in!  For a fiver, you can find just about any service you can think of, from fake testimonials, to placebo-effect health talks, to business advertising on the back of a Harley, to language lessons over Skype,  to cover art for e-books.  If you find yourself swimming in the Maelstrom of publishing, check it out.

But a word to the wise:  You get what you pay for.  Take it as a springboard, an idea; but take it and own it yourself.  Take the time to invest your energy in learning all you can about each step of the publishing, editing, and artistic processes.  Also, such offers only cover e-book cover art; they are lower in pixel than will be required for a paperback cover, so it’s worth looking into a solution that covers both formats.

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Concerning Fairy Tales

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

G.K. Chesterton


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A Grand Life

B&B Circus 2What do an old man, a garage, glass picture frames, a basement, clowns, dogs & Dr. Pepper have to do with each other?  Quite a lot, if you happened to be me at the age of 10.

Our dog Muppet had gotten out of the yard.  Again.  How she could squeeze through that narrow crack between two boards in our back yard fence I’ll never know, but she always found a way.  Who knew that one day in the summer of 1978 it would shape my life and my perceptions of people around me for the rest of my life?

Summer holiday found me on my bike most days, cruising through the Riverside area of the town I grew up in, Wichita, Kansas.  I’d hang out at the local golf club selling balls I’d retrieved from the rough for a cold Dr. Pepper, or at Cowtown, the living museum & shops of the Old West Wichita, or at the local Indian Center.  I usually had Muppet with me, on a leash running near my bike.  But sometimes she’d go without me, and I’d have to go find her.  One day I rode off and searched all the usual places, with no luck.  I’d just about given up when, riding down the street and calling her name, I heard an old man call out, “Ya lookin’ for a white dog?”

Barney, 90 at the time, told me that he’d taken Muppet into the house as it was a hot day, and he invited me in for a cool drink and to meet the Missus.  Muppet was being spoiled rotten and was in no hurry to leave; she’d been charmed by dog treats and a comfortable dog bed; Bessie charmed me with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, but  Barney won my heart when he offered me a Dr. Pepper so cold that it frosted the glass on the way in!  Their only son, Buster, lived just up the street with his wife, but they’d never had any children, and so I became the Bernards’ honorary granddaughter.  My mother had met them both as she was the local Avon Lady, so she knew where to look for me from that day on.

On my second visit Barney & Buster went out to the garage and took me with them saying they needed an audience:  Showmen at heart, and just like the revealing of Rosie in the film “Water for Elephants,” they slowly opened the wide double door of the garage to reveal another world, as floor to ceiling color met my wide eyes:  Clown costumes; a vanity with tins of face paint by the mirror, the stool being a bull tub; and the walls were lined with wooden pegs holding rows and rows of juggling equipment, clown tricks, masks, brightly painted wooden poster boards, wigs… oh, and a set of winter tires just to add that touch of normality.  You see, Barney had cut his teeth as a juggler, clown and acrobat with the circus (among others, the Barnum & Bailey), from 190-something to the late 1940s.  He travelled all over the US, living for the applause, and the smell of sawdust, elephants, horses, and face paint.

One summer the circus had landed on an Indian reservation in Arizona, and before they pulled up stakes again he’d met his future wife, the daughter of the local missionary.  With no promise of stability or routine, Bessie had no choice but to live the life of a gypsy if she married Barney.  Not knowing if or when he’d ever return, she pulled up stakes, grabbed the nearest judge and said “I do.”  Buster was born a few years later, and raised in a circus wagon cutting his teeth on juggling pins and clown costumes.

Eventually the nesting instinct and need for solid ground beneath her feet led them to settle at a mid-way stop in the road to ensure their continuing contact with the circus.  They built a temporary log cabin on the plains of Kansas, and each time the circus would pass by they’d be sure to set up camp around the Bernards’ home.  Imagine the sight of looking out your window in the mornings to see an entire zoo, a ring of caravans, people in various stages of costumes and makeup, and elephants bathing themselves in dust or nipping down to the river for a swim and ripping up chunks of buffalo grass for breakfast.  By the time I came along the settlers of Kansas had filled in the gap between Wichita & the plains surrounding the Bernards’ home.  Where elephants once rehearsed now stood my own family’s home.

Father and son, 90 and about 69, picked up one heavy juggling pin after the other, and soon had half a dozen and more flying back and forth down the driveway.  From there they moved on to rings, balls, knives… if they wanted to juggle fire, they had to be faster than Bessie’s watchful eye.  They could still juggle to beat the best, though I was a bit worried at first that Barney might hurt himself showing off – those pins were much heavier than they looked!  But one by one, they’d send them flying …5…6…7…8… and by the 9th or 10th pin I was having trouble imagining how they were going to stop without injuring someone or something.  But one by one, the pins would begin to disappear until only one remained and someone decided to hold onto it for the finale.  I was watching a piece of history come to life, and I reveled in it.

On another visit Barney took me down to the basement to show me his “secret source of power”:  A bar with a fridge that chilled all those Dr. Peppers, and a giant mason jar filled with my dog’s favorite treats.  The basement, one large room with simple carpeting and very little furniture, was completely lined with stacks of photo frames each up to my shoulders’ height, a backdrop for more circus paraphernalia, including a life-sized mechanical lion staring at me hungrily from the corner!  Barney had had it custom made; it roared, tilted its head and shook its mane, and twitched its tail.  For a little girl standing next to a one-of-a-kind life-sized animatronic lion, it was awe-inspiring.  Muppet barked and growled and carried on a storm until she got used to it, but she always kept one eye on it after that whether it moved or not.

In what became our habit, I’d take a seat on one of the bar stools as he’d pull out a random picture frame from a nearby stack, sit down next to me, and we’d take a journey back in time through the eyes of an old man reliving his magical youth.  “And this spot in that empty field right there,” he’d point enthusiastically, “is where your house now stands!  I remember when ours was the only house around!  I hauled the stones I built this house with from the river & river banks.  But I had help,” he smiled with a twinkle in his eye, reaching for another photo.  It was a black and white picture of one elephant carrying a stone in his trunk and another pushing a wheelbarrow.  During one of those visits their pachyderm friends helped them build the house I came to know (next to that original house site) in what is, I’m certain, unique to the history of Kansas!  The beauties would haul the stones up from the riverbeds to the building site, and help lift them into place as the men swarmed the walls with buckets of cement.  It was all there, in black and white.  Any time I smell a particular flavor of musty wood, I’m transported back to that magical time myself.

Each and every one of those frames contained a black and white moment in the history of the circus, or of the Midwest as it developed from prairies to towns to cities.  With each black and white photo came a story:  the juggler’s life; the life of a gypsy; the high wire; the tight rope; the clown routines; the grease paint; the costumes; the life of a rag tag mob thrown together by talents, personalities and circumstances, welded into one family by blood, sweat and tears; washing clothes in a tin bucket and stringing them up to dry between circus wagons, waving in the wind like colorful flags; the characters of circus life both in the ring and outside of the ring, on the road, around the camp fires, in country fairs and city streets, in circus parades, wagons, tents and big tops.  My heart aches at the thought of how many stories have been lost from that time; if I’d known I’d one day become a writer, I would have chronicled each and every story in all its color, intensity, and spirit.

Each visit was more fascinating than the last, and I learned over the years to never underestimate people:  The midget with a heart of gold, the bearded lady who loved to sing, the clown who was really lonely, and the juggler who also dabbled as a cook… each one gave their all and played their part in making life rich and worth the living.  I learned that you can learn something from everyone, and that everyone is important in some unique way.  I learned that the little old lady I pass on the street probably has an amazing story to tell, if I’d just take the time to listen.  They might be a former actress, or refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, or the survivor of a plane crash, or a former stewardess of an ocean liner, or a cousin of the Wright brothers (that would be my great-grandmother).  There’s a saying: “We make a living by what we get, but make a life by what we give.”  Barney and Bessie taught me that its far more blessed to give than to receive; they never had much materially, but were two of the richest people I’ve ever met.

I continued visiting them until my family moved away in 1983; Bessie passed away in her sleep just eighteen months after I got to know them, and Barney lived to the ripe old age of 95, and passed away just a few months after we’d moved.  I was able to see him one last time in the hospital a week before he passed; it was an important moment for us both.

When I’m old and grey, will someone take the time to ask me about my life?  Will my experiences pass from this world with me?  By writing them down I have the chance that someone will know, and be touched by something I’ve learned.

It’s the human desire to pass on what we’ve learned and experienced because each life is remarkable and unique.  The next time you see an elderly person, stop and think about what they might have experienced; better yet, take time to get to know them, talk to and listen to them… chances are they’ll blossom into the vigor of youth, and you’ll unearth a trove of incalculable treasure.

I wonder if the people who live in Barney’s house now know that it was built by elephants?

[For a lexicon of American (among others) circus slang, check out the website here. ]


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Animal Idioms

Raining cats and dogs, 1817 caricatureI love idioms; they bring abstract concepts to life with vivid imagery, and range from the practical to the hilarious.  If I said someone was clumsy, that’s all clear and well enough; but if I said they were as clumsy as a cow on rollerskates?  I think you know where that one’s going…  Here are a just few of my favourite animal idioms:

“to be as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs” – very nervous

“to bark up the wrong tree” – to be mistaken in one’s goals or focus

“to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” – to be eager, lively (especially at unexpected times, e.g. morning)

“to have ants in the pants” – to be jittery, excited, animated, hyper

“to cry wolf” – to rouse others to action when it is not necessary

“to be raining cats and dogs” – to be raining hard

“in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” – very quickly

“to look a gift horse in the mouth” – to scrutinize or criticize a gift or an offer to help, etc.

“to look like something the cat dragged in” – to be very ill, to look ill

“not enough room to swing a cat” – a tight space, a small room

“to buy a pig in a poke” – to buy something without having seen its quality first (German:  “die Katze im Sack kaufen”, or “to buy a cat in a sack”)

“to cast pearls before swines” – to waste one’s efforts or investments on worthless schemes or people

“to fight like cats and dogs” – to fight with someone (regularly, or vehemently)

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Mental Sparks: RAWs

Writers tend to have vivid imaginations.  If they’re organized like I am, they probably have a dozen books on the subjects of writing better, plotting, structure, syntax and the like.  But I sometimes find that I can become too bogged down in the nitty-gritty to enjoy; that’s when writer’s block can come.  I’ve found ways to spark creativity in such times (like many writers have, and have made books out of them to share with others), and my way is called RAW:  Randomly Applied Word.

I have a wee box on my desk filled with bits of paper (folded, wadded, you name it), and on each one is written a single word.  I also have a dice in the box that has sides of “place,” “time,” “name,” etc. written on it to give me a further direction if I need it.  I pull out a word and start brainstorming; these have led to short stories, and two manuscripts (so far) that I will be finishing off as novels.  The key for me in the exercise is to think outside of the box – look at it from different camera angles, if you will.  For instance, I pulled the word Drought; automatically I thought of desert; but what if that desert weren’t the usual tan or red colour?  Something completely unexpected?  That led to a science fiction manuscript (in the queue to finish next!), and studies in geology.  Another word was Cardinal.  From that came a modern two-part fantasy novel, The Cardinal.

When I come across an interesting or unusual word, no matter where, I write it down and toss it in the box.  If you want to apply this exercise, get a creative or decorative box or tin (mine is a wooden treasure chest), and start scrapping!

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Punning In Ten Did

visual punI don’t know who originally collected this list together, but have a good laugh, and a good week!
1. Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent.
2. A jumper cable walks into a bar. The bartender says, “I’ll serve you, but don’t start anything.”
3. Two peanuts walk into a bar, and one was a salted.
4. A dyslexic man walked into a bra.
5. A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm, and says: “A beer please, and one for the road.”
6. Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: “Does this taste funny to you?”
7. “Doc, I can’t stop singing The Green, Green Grass of Home.”
“That sounds like Tom Jones Syndrome.”
“Is it common?”
“Well, It’s Not Unusual.”
8. Two cows are standing next to each other in a field. Daisy says to Dolly, “I was artificially inseminated this morning.”
“I don’t believe you,” says Dolly.
“It’s true; no bull!” exclaims Daisy.
9. An invisible man marries an invisible woman. The kids were nothing to look at either.
10. Deja Moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bull before.
11. I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day, but I couldn’t find any.
12. A man woke up in a hospital after a serious accident. He shouted, “Doctor, doctor, I can’t feel my legs!” The doctor replied, “I know, I amputated your arms!”
13. I went to a seafood disco last week…And pulled a mussel.
14. What do you call a fish with no eyes? A fsh.
15. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam!”
16. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Not surprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.
17. A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel, and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories.
After about an hour, the manager came out of the office, and asked them to disperse.
“But why,” they asked, as they moved off.
“Because,” he said. “I can’t stand chess-nuts boasting in an open foyer.”
18. A woman has twins, and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt , and is named ‘Ahmal.’ The other goes to a family in Spain ; they name him ‘Juan.’ Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wishes she also had a picture of Ahmal. Her husband responds, “They’re twins! If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Ahmal.
19. Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him (oh, man, this is so bad, it’s good)…A super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.
20. A dwarf, who was a mystic, escaped from jail. The call went out that there was a small medium at large.
21. And finally, there was the person who sent twenty different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least ten of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

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A Date with History

In writing, I like to have my days of the week accurate with the year I’m writing in; at the moment I’m putting the final touches on a novel set in 1788, and to get the dates accurate, here’s the website I’ve been using:

Just feed in the year and place you’re wanting, and bob’s your uncle.  If you go further back in time, just be aware that calculations of months and days have not always been the same; The Gregorian calendar has gone through some changes since its inception; for instance, there are 10 days missing in October 1582 (the last day of the Julian calendar was Thursday, 4 October 1582 and this was followed by the first day of the Gregorian calendar, Friday, 15 October 1582).

There are also other calendars to consider, e.g. the Roman calendar (, Germanic, Icelandic, Asian, Arabic… time has long been calculated.  It’s a bit comforting to know, when I have trouble remembering what day of the week it is sometimes!

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Common “Spell-Offs”

FunnyYes, Spell-offs. Not as in, “let’s have a spelling bee,” but as in “the spellings that throw people off” – and yes, the latter is my own definition. But what better describes the mistakes that so often throw people off? As a teacher of English, and as a writer and editor, I see common problems pop up again and again in people’s written communication. I’ve put together the following list to help you sort out problems you might share with others. It’s all about choices between two or more spellings, and understanding what those spellings represent. Remember to pay special attention to which version of the word you’re using; learning the definitions of each spelling goes a long way in guarding against these mistakes.

NOTE: Apostrophes are NEVER, EVER used to create plurals of words. They are strictly for denoting possession (Sarah’s shoes) or contraction (That’s the point.).

If there are any other words you struggle with, please add in a comment below, with either a mnemonic of how to remember something easier, or a question that I’ll try to answer.

  • Affect and Effect: “Affect” is a verb meaning “to influence” (She was affected by the film.). “Effect” refers to a result (noun) (The effect on the carpet is apparent.)REMEMBER: Try what I call the “replacement principle”: If you can replace another word which you know to be the same part of speech as the one in question, then it is the correct form: E.g.: “The stain on the carpet is apparent.” (Stain is a noun, so effect would be used.) “She was moved by the film.” (Moved is a verb, so affect would be correct.)
  • A lot: A lot is two words. Every time. “There’s a lot of space between ‘a’ and ‘lot’.” REMEMBER: You would never write “abedroom”, “abunch” or “acat”.
  • All ready and Already: “All ready” means “prepared” (The cookie dough was all ready to make cookies the following morning.). “Already” is an adverb meaning “prior to a specified or implied time” (I can’t believe you already ate the cookie dough!).
  • All right and Alright: These two forms are controversial: Some grammar nerds will swear that “alright” is never all right. But the two forms have emerged with distinct definitions, and I’ll give a sentence example where the choice makes all the difference in understanding the sentence correctly: “The figures are all right” means that the figures are all accurate. But when you write “The figures are alright,” it means that the figures are acceptable, or satisfactory (they may also be accurate, but that is not the emphasis of this sentence and therefore a moot point). Language is constantly expanding, and though “alright” is considered wrong by many linguists and grammarians, it is gaining foothold with the nuance of difference in definition to its more formidable partner.
  • All together and Altogether: “All together”means “collectively”, and can be separated in a sentence (Let’s sing the song all together at the count of three. We all sang the song together.). “Altogether” means “entirely” (We were altogether too tired to go dancing this evening.). If you’re uncertain which one to use, replace the word in your sentence with the definition word given here; the one that makes sense is the one you want to use.  
  • Altar and Alter: “Altar” is a noun meaning “a special table in religious ceremonies” (The wedding was performed at the altar.), while “Alter” is a verb meaning “to change, to make something or someone different” (Jane had to have her wedding dress altered before she could wear it.).
  • Assure, Insure and Ensure: “Assure” is a verb meaning “to make a promise / commitment, or inform with certainty” (The politician assured his voters that he wouldn’t raise their taxes; he lied.). Insure is a verb meaning “to take out insurance for something” (I’m glad I insured my car; a tree was blown down on it in the storm.). Ensure is verb meaning “to make certain that something happens or is done” (I want to ensure that I’ve packed everything – I’ll check one more time.). REMEMBER: Insure is insurance; Ensure is making sure the “end” result happens.  NOTE: “Sure” is closely related to ensure; the sentence structure would be slightly different: I want to make sure I’ve packed everything…
  • Breath and Breathe: “Breath” is the noun meaning “the inhalation and exhaling of air” (She took a deep breath before diving.), while “Breathe” is the verb meaning “to inhale and exhale, or to impart as if by breathing” (My breath is short; I need to breathe in my asthma medication. The new coat of paint breathed life into the old house.).
  • Complement and Compliment:“Complement” is a verb meaning “to combine well with something, often something that has different qualities” (The colour of her dress complemented her eyes.). “Compliment” is a verb meaning “to say something nice to or about someone”(I complimented her on her good choice of colours.). REMEMBER: Compl-E-ment makes something more Elegant; Compl-I-ment means that I say something nice.
  • Counsel and Council: “Counsel” is a verb meaning “to give someone advice about what to do in a particular situation” or a noun referring to such a person (I counselled my friend to wait.). “Council” is a noun meaning “an official group of people who have been chosen to make decisions or provide advice.” (The council met to discuss the items from their last meeting.)
  • Dryer and Drier: “Dryer” (noun) is a machine that dries things like clothes or hair. (As soon as the dryer is finished I can switch loads of laundry.) “Drier” is the comparative form of the adjective “dry” (dry, drier, driest/dryest). (It’s drier now – shall we go for a walk?)
  • Emigrate and Immigrate:Emigrate” is a verb meaning “to Exit your country in order to live in another country” (I emigrated from America to live in Scotland.), while Immigrate is just the opposite – a verb meaning “to come Into a country because you want to live there” (He immigrated to France from England, and now lives in Paris.).
  • Except and Accept: “Except” means “to exclude” (verb) (Too many cooks spoil the broth – present company excepted, of course.); or “with the exception of, but” (preposition) (Everyone except Edward went to the beach.); or “with the exception that” (conjunction) (You look like my brother, except you have shorter hair.). “Accept” means to receive an offer, an idea, a person’s suggestion, etc. (I accepted his advice / invitation / proposal.).
  • Here and Hear: “Here” refers to place. “Hear” refers to the act of listening (ears) (Even from here, behind a closed door on the fifth floor, I can hear the music.).
  • Its and It’s: “Its” is a possessive pronoun. (The cat licks its fur to clean itself.) “It’s” is a contraction of it and is, or it and has. (It’s going to be a beautiful day. It’s been a long time since I saw him.) REMEMBER: You would never write “hi’s shirt” or “he’r jeans”, so it should NEVER be “it’s shirt”, but rather “its shirt”. If you’re not sure which one to use, use the replacement principle: Try using “it is” or “it has” in the sentence, and if it makes sense it’s “it’s”; if not, it is “its”. And keep the note about apostrophes above in mind!
  • Lead and Led: “Lead” is both verb and noun: (V): “to guide or conduct in a certain course” (He leads the choir on Thursday evenings.); (N): “A heavy, pliable, inelastic metal element” (The lead pencil left a mark on the wooden table.). “Led” is the simple past tense and past participle (always comes with have or has) of the verb lead. (Clifton led the choir on Thursdays until his wife had a baby. Since then, James has led the choir.)
  • Lose and Loose: “Lose” is a verb. “Loose” is an adjective. (You’ll lose your keys if you try to hold up your loose trousers.)
  • Moot and Mute: “Moot” is an adjective meaning “no longer important because a particular situation has changed or no longer exists” (Now that the train has left the station without us, it’s a moot point as to whether or not we’ll arrive on time.). “Mute” is a verb meaning “to make something less strong or extreme” or a noun meaning “not willing (or able) to speak” (Could you please mute the volume – I’m on the phone and I can’t hear the other person speaking. The deaf man was also mute.)
  • Past and Passed: “Past” is an adverb or proposition meaning “going near someone or something while you are on your way to another place” or “after a particular time” (I drove past his house on my way to work. We used to fight as kids, but that’s all in the past; we’re friends now.). “Passed” is the simple past tense and past participle (always with either have or has) of the verb “pass” (I passed his house on my way to work. I have passed the exams, and now I can go on holidays.)
  • Principal and Principle: “Principal” is an adjective meaning “primary; most important,” (The principal cause of failure was poor management.); a noun meaning “money initially invested,” (A portion of your mortgage payment goes to reduce the principal); or “head administrator of a school” (The principal of our school is retiring next year.) “Principle” is a noun meaning “a fundamental assumption or moral rule” (Principles are the basis of sound reason. She would not work on Sunday because of her personal principles.) REMEMBER: The principal alphabetic principle places A before E.
  • Rain, Reign, Rein: “Rain” is a noun referring to atmospheric moisture that falls (It’s raining.); Reign is both noun and verb, meaning “the exercise of sovereign power” or “to rule as a monarch” (Queen Elizabeth has reigned for sixty years. Her reign has been a long and peaceful one.). “Rein” is a noun referring to the strap or rope attached to the bridle bit of an animal, and also a verb referring to the action of using the reins to stop or direct the action of said animal. (He reined the horse to a stop with a tight grip on the reins.)
  • Shudder and Shutter: “Shudder” is a noun, “shivering tremor”, or verb, “to shake nervously” as from fear (There was a shudder in the ground as the nearby building was detonated. She shuddered at the thought.). “Shutter” is a noun, “protective panels placed over windows to block out the light” or verb referring to those panels. (I pulled the shutters closed to take a nap. Shutter the windows – a storm is coming.)
  • Then and Than: “Then” is used to show the order of events. (We went to lunch, then to the library.) “Than” is used to show comparison. (In the northern hemisphere, the summer is warmer than the winter.)
  • There, Their and They’re: “There” refers to a place or idea. “Their” is the possessive of “they.” “They’re” is a contraction of “they” and “are.” (There are seven apartments in our building; their doors all open onto the same entrance hall, and we all get along well; they’re friendly and helpful.)
  • Too, To and Two: “Too” means in addition / as well. “To” is a preposition that indicates motion in the direction of a place or thing. “Two” is the written version of the number 2. (I’m going to the cinema; Jim is coming too as I was able to buy two tickets.)
  • Weather and Whether: “Weather” is a noun to do with sunshine, wind, etc. (The weather is forecasted to become drier this week.). “Whether” is a conjunction expressing a doubt or a choice between alternatives (I haven’t decided whether I should go or not.).
  • Your and You’re: “Your” is a possessive preposition. “You’re” is a contraction of “you” and “are”: (You’re going to remember to bring your coat, aren’t you? It’s cold outside.)

Feel free to use this, but please give credit where credit is due for the work involved.  Text credit: Stephanie Huesler, © May 2013

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