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Words are what I do

October 2, 2010 - Brad Siddons
As I work my way into the fourth decade of earning a living with the printed — and, more and more these days, digital — word, there are still a few of them that give me the old forearm shiver every once in a while.

Now I'm not making excuses for myself, but I'm going to blame the two examples I'm about to name on where I grew up, and on the way we all talked down in Southeastern Pennsylvania back in the middle of the 20th century. The words in question are caramel, and crayon. OK, what's so tough about them, you might well ask. It's not their definitions that throw me. One is a delicious candy that pulls your fillings out, and the other is a drawing instrument popular with children. It's how you spell them that I find tricky.

The candy almost tripped me up Friday night, as I was adding a note to The Sentinel Calendar. I typed in “carmel,” without the second “a” because that's they way I learned to say the silly thing, way back when. You know, “Ma, may I please have a carmel?” Oh, the shame of it … The other word is even worse. Crayons, I am eternally embarrassed to admit, will, deep in my psyche, be pronounced “crowns,” thanks again to my peers who all asked for them that way. “Hey Bradley (yeah, yeah, yeah), are you gonna hog all of those crowns?”

I know I will always struggle with those two — and a few others, I'll admit — until I'm through with this life. Maybe in the life I'm preparing for, the one that really counts, my English will be perfect, too.

•••

OK, let's get something straight. The Mifflin County School Board has embarked on a feasibility study to help determine future needs. Almost before word of this study became public knowledge, there has been talk of a move to a “one-county high school.” AAAARRRGGGHHH! Please think about that quoted phrase for a minute. It just doesn't make sense. Oh, if we currently had a single high school that covered two counties – a two-county high school -- then moving toward a school for only one county would result in a one-county high school. But that's not what we're talking about, is it? IF the move should ever occur – and I'm not weighing in for either side here, merely talking about the words being used to describe possible outcomes – it would involve shifting from the two high schools to one for the whole district. In other words, the Mifflin County School District would become a one-high-school district. Or, Mifflin County would become a one-high-school county. That's all I have to say about that.

•••

This year I want to head into the woods wearing a Stormy Kromer. It's just a hat, made of wool, with these kind of dorky-looking ear flaps that you untie and pull down when the weather really gets nasty. Yeah, there are other hats that would no doubt work as well as the Stormy, and it's not that I really want to wander around looking like Elmer Fudd. I just flat love the name, which the hat shares with its inventor, who began manufacturing them in Milwaukee back in 1919. That's why this entry wound up in a blog about words. The name sings to me. Besides, anything that's been around that long must have something going for it.

•••

America is being attacked by the lowly apostrophe, and the little bugger appears to be winning!

I see it everywhere, most commonly on signs — sometimes very permanent, expensive-looking signs — in letters to the editor, on advertisements, and yes, occasionally within articles in The Sentinel.

No, I'm (see, there's one — I mean two — now) not talking about the correct use of the apostrophe. It is all too commonly used incorrectly, and lately in a way that I seldom noticed before: to pluralize nouns. See, that noun doesn't need one, does it? Yet I see this error everywhere — most often proper nouns such as family names (The Smith's), so I'll try to explain: Use an apostrophe to make a contraction (like that "doesn't" in the previous sentence. The bit of punctuation replaces the missing letter); or to denote possession (such as "my daughter's daughters.") Sure, there are rare exceptions — English is full of those — but generally you will be safe if you stick to those basic rules. The family mentioned above would be safe to merely put "The Smiths" on their house sign.

A year or so ago I noticed a sign on the gymnasium wall of a distant high school our basketball team was visiting. The sign read "Senior's Night" and was posted by the cheerleading squad, the faculty adviser of which was, I was told, the high school English teacher. Oh, say it isn't so.

 
 

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