Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Setting a Few Parameters

Though I became an editor partly because I enjoy finding fault in the work of others, I have on occasion tried to help my fellow man and woman right some of the more popular wrongs perpetrated against the language.

Readers of Editorial Emergency will recall our series "Suffering From Homophonia?" Therein we offered hints about how not to confuse your and you're; there, their and they're; and, in a particularly meaty installment, peek, peak and pique, principle and principal, and shudder and shutter.

We've also paid tribute more than once to Mrs. Malaprop, teasing out the difference between anecdote and antidote, prospective and perspective, and prostrate and prostate, not to mention staunch and stanch, tenet and tenant, and gamut and gambit.

Let's consider this outing something of a combo pack; Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you three homophones (technically three pairs of homophones) and a malapropism.

Capitol/Capital: People seem to get this wrong almost as often as they get it right. Capitol/capital confusion has even made its way into Not Our Clients. And I understand why, because nine times out of 10 the capitol is IN the capital.

A "capitol," or more frequently, the capitol, is a building, one "in which a state legislative body meets," per Merriam-Webster, or "a group of buildings in which the functions of state government are carried out."

A "capital," on the other hand, is a city, one "serving as a seat of government" (of course "capital" has many meanings, but this one is the most easily twisted with "capitol"). How does one avoid muddling the two? It may seem silly, but my method involves picturing the dome of the U.S. Capitol, which is shaped roughly like the letter "O" (at least it resembles the letter "O" more than the letter "A"). The visual association of the building and the "O" has reliably spared me embarrassment.

Phase/Faze: This one doesn't come up as much as capitol/capital, but I did happen upon it not long ago in the work of a client, who'd written, "Nothing phases her." I knew "phases" was not right there, but I must admit it took me a second to think of "faze." (I gather from this that, under ordinary editorial circumstances, "phase" appears more frequently than "faze.") For the most part, you can be going through a phase or you can phase something out, thus "phase" can be a noun or a verb. "Faze," conversely, is strictly a verb, meaning "to disturb the composure of."

Still, how do you remember when to write "phase" and when to write "faze?" I think of "daze," which, like "faze," boasts a "z." It also has a related meaning — if you are in a daze, you are surely fazed. It follows, then, that if the sentence you're constructing does not find anyone in a daze — or otherwise impeded — the word you're looking for is likely "phase."

Flower/Flour: I concede that I've only encountered this once, but that single instance was so egregious given the context that I must speak out. As you can see in one of this issue's Not Our Clients inclusions, the culprit was someone intimately acquainted with dough and really should have known better. Clearly, that simpleton needs a trick to remember when to use "flower" and when to you use "flour." I'm confident that YOU do not.

Perimeter/Parameter: Confusing these two isn't as mortifying as mixing up "prostrate" and "prostate," but I wouldn't suggest making this mistake in, say, YOUR RESUME. Fortunately, the person who was dumb enough to make this mistake in his resume was smart enough to hire me. In my client's defense, "perimeter" and "parameter" both suggest limits — you may not be surprised to learn that they share the Greek root "metron" (measure).

Merriam-Webster defines a "perimeter" alternately as "the boundary of a closed plane figure" (hmm), "a line or strip bounding or protecting an area," and "the part of a basketball court outside the three-point line." Better yet, it offers the example of "soldiers guarding the perimeter of the camp." In general, a "perimeter" delineates a physical space whereas a "parameter" circumscribes a conceptual space, which is what I think Merriam-Webster is trying to say here:

  1. an arbitrary constant whose value characterizes a member of a system (as a family of curves); a quantity (as a mean or variance) that describes a statistical population
  2. something represented by a parameter; a characteristic element; broadly, characteristic, element, factor — political dissent as a parameter of modern life
  3. limit, boundary, usually used in plural — the parameters of science fiction

As you've faithfully followed me down this rabbit hole I shall reward you next time with a treatise on "effect" and "affect," one of the most common homophonic hazards lurking in the linguistic landscape. In the meantime, let us know in the comments below if you find yourself on the horns of a lexiconic dilemma and we'll see what we can do to dislodge you.

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 7th 2011, 6:44 AM
Comment by: Pamela B. (Atlanta, GA)
I wanted to rate this article with five stars. I clicked the "Rate this article," thinking it would take me to a scale. Thinking that nothing happened, I clicked it again a few times AND then I realized the star count was changing! All to say, I gave at least three or four ratings of unknown stars and all I wanted to do was vote once for five! Sorry!
Monday November 7th 2011, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Neil B. (Bedford Park, IL)
Care to take on enculturate/enculturation and inculurate/inculturation? Or just a preference of spelling between secular folks and religious groups? Thanks!!
Monday November 7th 2011, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Pamela B, at least you have stars to click. Recently, more frequently than not, I don't even get any stars to click. Nevertheless, I liked the article and look forward to "a treatise on "effect" and "affect,"."
Monday November 7th 2011, 3:22 PM
Comment by: Alice Yen Y. (Ottawa Canada)
I have recently come upon both a newspaper and a magazine using 'Forward' for 'Foreword' - I was dismayed. Is it carelessness or another easy to commit error?
Monday November 7th 2011, 3:33 PM
Comment by: Anne B.
Perhaps you've covered this pair already: further and farther. If not, they are fair game. And then there's fair and fare as well.
Monday November 7th 2011, 9:08 PM
Comment by: Margaret (Perth Australia)
And how about alternately and alternatively? I think you have it wrong.
Maybe that's because I use my national dictionary Macquarie, which has alternately as "by turns" and alternatively as "by choice"
Tuesday November 8th 2011, 2:20 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Re/the prostate/prostrate issue: here's bit of humor for a change. Whenever someone's joke falls flat, it could be due to an overactive prostrate gland.
Tuesday November 8th 2011, 4:06 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I would add compliment and complement, peak and pique, and bought and brought (at least in Australia).

I enjoy finding errors too. Is it linguenfreude?

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