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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics


The first thing to know about spelling is: Don’t trust the spell checker! It isn’t always right. It doesn’t catch the error if you’ve misspelled the word you want, but you spell another word. It doesn’t catch homonyms, and it says alright is all right as a word. It isn’t.


Yes, English is treacherous, especially spelling, but there are some rules. For the most part, make a good friend of your dictionary (I like the American Heritage for reasons we don’t need to go into unless you’re a word fan as I am).


So, OK, here are some of the homonyms




Contrary to popular belief homonyms are not creatures from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; they are words that sound alike, but have different meanings. As I said, the spell checker will not catch these words. So, we must be ever-vigilant.


ALTER—to change

ALTAR—a table in a church where religious ceremonies are performed


BRAKE—those things on a car that stop the car

BREAK—to shatter


CAPITOL—the building that’s the seat of a state government

CAPITAL—1. the city that’s the seat of a state or national government

                     2. an upper case letter

                     3. a crime punishable by death (capital murder)


COMPLEMENT—something that completes or makes perfect. The analog dials complement the dashboard.

COMPLIMENT—a pleasing remark. My compliments on a super-duper party.


IT’S—contraction of it is. It’s my party, and I’ll cry if want to.

ITS—possessive. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.—C. Northcote Parkinson.


LEAD—to go first, present tense. You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.—Dorothy Parker, when asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence. (Pronounced leed)

LED—past tense. The counselor led the scouts through a deep ravine.

LEAD—a metal. Bullets are made of lead. (Pronounced led)


PRINCIPLE—1. a rule of conduct. (The judge accused Benedict Arnold of having no principles.)

                         2. a main fact or law. (He understands the principles of mathematics.)

PRINCIPAL—1. the main one of several things. (The principal parts of the verb are difficult to master.)

                         2. head of a school. (He had to go the principal’s office to be disciplined.)


STATIONERY—writing paper. I can’t write to my mother because I’m out of stationery. (I realize this is an arcane concept.)

STATIONARY—in a fixed position. (Put the foot that’s on the floor beside the foot that’s in the air and remain stationary.)


THEN—at that time; an adverb. (Until then, my darling, please wait for me.)

THAN—a conjunction that compares. (He’s older than dirt.)


THEY’RE—Contraction for they are. (They’re making a big fuss over nothing.)

THERE—a place. (Be there or be square.)

THEIR—possessive. Belonging to them. (The Amish go their own way.)


TO—a preposition indicating direction or part of an infinitive. (Give the book to me, or I’ll be forced to blow you away.)

TOO—also or much. (Me, too. That dress costs too much.)

TWO—1 +1. (Certs has two, two, two mints in one.)


WHO’S—contraction for who is. (Who’s going to the prom?)

WHOSE—possessive. (Whose food is that in the refrigerator?)


YOU’RE—contraction for you are. (You’re the cream in my coffee.)

YOUR—possessive. (Hi, my name is Todd, and I’ll be your server this evening.)


There are a bunch more, so just be on the lookout and read your manuscript carefully. If you’re not sure, consult your dictionary.


A couple of real honest to goodness rules.



1. The basic way to make a plural is to add an –s.

Example:        lamps (noun)

                        glimpses (verb)


2. An –es is used when the word ends in –s, -sh, -ch, -ss, -z and -x.

Example:        box      boxes

                        adz      adzes


3. When the word ends in –y (say it with me), change the –y to –i and add –es.

Example:        spy      spies


If the –y ender has an –e before it, just add –s.

Example:        money        moneys


4. If the word ends in –f or –fe, usually just add an –s.

Example: roofs


There are exceptions to this rule. (Of course, there are.)


Sometimes the –f is changed to –v and add –s or –es.

Example: knife           knives


5. There are some irregular words. (This is English, remember. You can’t trust it.)

Example:        woman            women

                        tooth                teeth   


There are more. If you’re a native English speaker, you don’t even think about them, you just write them.


6. Words that end in –o have two rules depending on whether there’s a consonant before the -o or not. If there’s a vowel before the –o, just add –s.

Example:        radio       radios


If there’s a consonant before the –o, add –es.

Example:      potato        potatoes     (In Dan Quayle defense [and I do so on this issue only; otherwise, he’s pretty indefensible] the flash card was wrong. It spelled the singular potatoe. Which raises another more frightening question, who wrote those flash cards? And why are they teaching our children? [Oh, look, another irregular word]) 


7. Compound nouns. If the compound noun is one word, the basic rule applies.

Example:       eyeful         eyefuls


If the compound is a noun plus a modifier and has hyphens, then the noun is the plural.

Example:        brother-in-law       brothers-in-law


Of course, there are exceptions.

Example:        drive-in           drive-ins


8. Some nouns stay the same whether they’re singular or plural.

Example:        sheep        sheep


Many thousands of years ago, when I was first learning this stuff, the word cannon was one of those unchangeable words, but now cannons is acceptable.


I before E


Here’s one of the old faithfuls. Do they still teach the rhyme in school?


I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh. Sounds simple, right? There are exceptions all over the place. This time spell check might help, but just in case keep that dictionary handy.


Note: A lot of English spelling is ruled by the letter E, whether you keep it or drop it, especially when adding new endings to a word. If the new ending starts with a vowel the –e is dropped; if the new ending starts with a consonant, the –e is kept.


(If you really want me to make you crazy, -e governs how any preceding vowel is pronounced, whether it’s a long vowel or a short one. Sometimes.)


Example:        care    careful (If the –e is dropped, it would be carful, meaning a full car. Also, notice the new ending starts with a consonant.)

                        care    caring (just too funky-looking as careing, as well as putting the pronunciation in doubt Also notice the new ending starts with a vowel.)

                        true      truly (Although I have seen it with the –e more times than I can count, it’s still wrong.)


Finally, I don’t think I mentioned this before: Keep a dictionary handy. Even if you’re a dandy speller, keep that dictionary near you.