Thursday, October 25, 2007

Proofreading 101 cont'd: homonyms

Today's topic: homonyms.

I'm sure most of us are straight on synonyms and antonyms. Homonyms, in case you're wondering, are those pesky little pairs of words that often trip us up when writing. A homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling or pronunciation (or both) but have different meanings. Good editors and proofreaders should catch them but why give them the pleasure? Writers are editors too.

Here is an example:
Two ships pass in the night.
Did the two ships go past each other?
Or did they go passed each other?
When writing, if we're lucky, our thoughts gallop along and we haven't the time to waste thinking about whether it's proper in this case to use "past" or "passed". However, during the editing process, when we typically have more time to reflect, we should know the answer.

Think of this pair of homonyms as follows:
  • "Passed" is always a verb, formed by adding -ed to the present tense verb "pass" (technically, then, "passed" is a past participle of the verb "pass").
  • "Past" can be a noun (meaning what has already happened, as in yesterday or days of yore), an adjective (meaning "former", as in "this past week"), a preposition (as in "half past nine"), and an adverb (meaning "beyond" such as "I walked past the store"). BUT "past" is never a verb.
So the answer to the above question is....

....drum roll please...

Past! The correct answer is "Did the two ships go past each other?" In this case, "past" modifies the verb "go", so it is an adverb.

However, it is also true that the two ships "passed" each other.

Confused! I know I am!!!

For a list of commonly confused homonyms, visit this link. Good luck!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pass the wine, please. I think I need a glass! Great post!

1:10 am  

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