Flash Card: Setting a Few Parameters

ImageThough 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.

Longtime readers 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.

ImagePhase/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).

 

In general, a "perimeter" delineates a physical space whereas a "parameter" circumscribes a conceptual space.

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, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if you find yourself on the horns of a lexiconic dilemma and I'll see what I can do to dislodge you.