LawProse Lesson #293: Word-Swapping

The English-language has so many homophones (sound-alike words) and near-homophones that it’s hard for people to keep them straight. Let me illustrate with a fictitious paragraph:

You know I have a photogenic memory. After Easter observations a couple of years ago, I was at the church bizarre when I overheard someone making laudable remarks about my son, who’d been recouping from mononucleosis. Although I’d become inhered to such praise, the man was speaking so voraciously that it was embarrassing. I had the forebidding sense that something exciting was about to happen. But all his talk was just a damp squid. He wanted me to notice, but he was just sprouting gibberish. I gave him short shift.

Nobody would talk quite that way, it’s true, except perhaps someone modeled on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s famous character from his play The Rivals (1775)—namely, Mrs. Malaprop. She gave us the word malapropism, which denotes the grotesque misuse of a word, often one with some similarity in sound or stress pattern to another word.

Now try counting the malapropisms in the fictitious passage above. There are 11 of them. Below I’ve reproduced the passage with the correct terms in brackets:

You know I have a photogenic [photographic] memory. After Easter observations [observances] a couple of years ago, I was at the church bizarre [bazaar] when I overheard someone making laudable [laudatory] remarks about my son, who’d been recouping [recuperating] from mononucleosis. Although I’d become inhered [inured] to such praise, the man was speaking so voraciously [vociferously] that it was embarrassing. I had the forebidding [foreboding] sense that something exciting was about to happen. But all his talk was just a damp squid [damp squib]. He wanted me to notice, but he was just sprouting [spouting] gibberish. I gave him short shift [short shrift].

The English language has some 6,500 terms that are susceptible to word-swapping. If these things interest you, there’s an app you ought to get: Garner’s Modern English Usage. The hefty 1,100-page book explains every one of them. But the full text is available in app form, so you can check any potential misusage on the spot. There’s nothing else like it, and it’s more systematically reliable than anything you’ll find browsing the web. The app also has 30 challenging usage quizzes you can take to test your knowledge. Have fun with them.

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