HOMEWORK: Malaprops

Last week’s class was a blast. We cracked ourselves up making up malaprops and recalling some doozies made by our family & friends.

Here is what we did in class. I will post some of the answers below. Also, you can click the sheet below to download the pdf.

Word Usage Worksheet


Writer’s Cramp

August 19, 2010

Word Usage and “Malaprops”

Warm  Up

Spend 10 minutes or so to write about a time a word mix up caused either trouble, drama, comedy, or all three.

The Info

A rerun of The Office inspired this week’s topic–word usage. The episode, called Casino Night, centers on a charity event at the office, and bumbling boss Michael Scott (played by actor Steve Carell) tells the audience, “I consider myself a great philanderer.”

He means, of course, philanthropist, or charitable person. Philanderer, on the other hand, means a person who is unfaithful or promiscuous.

This sort of ironic wordplay is part of the genius of the show and of the Michael Scott character, who is, in fact, a philanderer (especially in this episode when he invites two dates to casino night). However, it’s a fairly realistic (though comic) portrayal of how usage errors occur. Word usage errors are probably one of the most common mistakes I see, and, as Mignon Fogarty points out in her Quick and Dirty Tips book, they can get you in the most trouble! Common usage errors include confusing there/their/they’re or a/an or to/two/too. However, there are many more common mix-ups that were not drilled into our heads in school. There are too many specific usage errors for me to list all of them and attempt to create memorable ways of avoiding making such mistakes. I could probably devote a blog just to usage errors (and maybe I will someday.)

I will, however, attempt to explain why and when usage errors occur. In my experience, the highest frequency of usage errors occurs when the writer is writing outside of her style comfort zone. An example might be when a writer cops an uber-formal tone. Examples of these are cover letters for job interviews, formal essays, or other pieces in which the writer assumes the audience wants her to appear excessively knowledgeable or professional. Or, simply, when the writer has no idea who the audience is.

Just recently, while editing a friend’s cover letter for a job application, I came across this usage snafu:

I will make a consorted effort to promote a positive image of your company.

I knew consorted was not the right word. The phrase is concerted effort.

  • Consort=partner or companion
  • To consort=to accompany, to keep company with, to be in agreement with

Either way, it doesn’t make sense. Agreeing with the effort? Accompanying the effort?

Once I fixed that, I had to read over it a few times. Sure, the phrase “I will make a concerted effort” has passed through my ears and even over my lips many times, but here, in the context of this letter, it seemed glaringly wrong. But why? I looked it up: Concert means sort of what it says. As an adjective, concerted means in collaboration with. It can also mean carried out with great strain. It does work, technically, but it still felt wrong. I suggested conscious effort because conscious means to do something on purpose. Better yet, strike the phrase and go with a strong, simple verb in future tense. It sounds less wishy-washy and wordy. It could read like, “I’ll try to promote your company, but I might not succeed.” You don’t want to invite doubt. Instead:

I will promote a positive image of your company.

Pay attention to what the words you are using actually mean. Often I find writers regurgitate words and phrases that they have heard used, but whose origins and meanings elude them. I wouldn’t suggest that you memorize all of the possible usage errors that you might make, but I would suggest looking carefully at the words you choose and learning what they mean. The reason usage errors occur when a writer ventures out of his comfort zone is because he tries to use words and phrases he thinks he has heard before. Even though we learn language through mimicry, it’s not always a good way to pick up new vocabulary. Make sure you know what you are saying and what it means before your try it out on a potential future boss.

Pop Quiz

From the following list, pick the correct usage of the word or phrase:

1)             A. for all intensive purposes                             B. for all intents and purposes

2)            A.  car insurance                 B. car ensurance                           C. car assurance

3)            A. cause and affect                                              B. cause and effect

4)            A. six of one-half, dozen of another                  B. six of one, half-dozen of the other

5)            A. weather or not                                                     B. whether or not

6)            A. the call was of an urgent nature                   B. the call was of an emergent nature

7)           A. the new tv is defective                                       B. the new tv is deflective

8)          A. the robber eluded the police                            B. the robber alluded the police

9)          A. the magician was a master of allusion            B. the magician was a master of illusion

10)       A. please be discreet about your raise                  B. please be discrete about your raise

Now for each incorrectly used word, write a sentence that uses the word correctly.

1)      _________________________________________________________________________

2)      _________________________________________________________________________

3)      _________________________________________________________________________

4)      _________________________________________________________________________

5)      _________________________________________________________________________

6)      _________________________________________________________________________

7)      _________________________________________________________________________

8)      _________________________________________________________________________

9)      _________________________________________________________________________

10)   _________________________________________________________________________

Put yourself in Michael Scott’s shoes. Write a few malaprops of your own. (Perhaps you have overheard some doozies.) Be as creative as you like!

1)      _________________________________________________________________________

2)      _________________________________________________________________________

3)      _________________________________________________________________________

4)      _________________________________________________________________________

5)      _________________________________________________________________________

Extra! Extra!

A little more info (in you were wondering) about intentional (and unintentional) word-play devices:

Word Play: Puns, Spoonerisms, & Malapropisms
by Doreen Peri

http://poetry-magazine.com/poetry/poetry-004/99page.htm!”hares”There were 12 rabbits and we divided them in the pen, 6 on one side and 6 on the other side. I can’t believe my mother said we were splitting

Basically, there are three different types of “play on words” recognized and defined in the English language (well, there may be more than three, but as far as I know these are the main three) – Pun, Spoonerism, and Malapropism. I’ve always enjoyed this type of humor and often, even in every day speech and to the point of boring friends and relatives, throw one in. (I’m really not TRYING to get a laugh – I just can’t help myself. LOL). OK, so here we go with some definitions. (I love this stuff!)

#1 Pun – “A pun is a CLEVER AND INTENTIONAL play on words and humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound.” [Emphasis added]

Here’s an Example of a pun:

discussion.previous”. What ensued was a somewhat lengthy discussion about “word plays,” which we all found quite enjoyable. Since this newsletter issue has a theme of humor, we thought we’d talk a bit about the difference between several types of “plays on words” and let the readers in to some of our malapropism” the definition ofAbout a year ago someone asked

#2 Spoonerism – “William A. Spooner [died 1930, English clergyman & educator] First appeared 1900 – a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words”

Example of a spoonerism:

Saying “tons of soil” for “sons of toil”.

Another famous spoonerism (to my family, at least) is the joke about a baseball pitcher by the name of Mel Famey who drank too many beers before pitching the game. Punch line, “It was the beer that made Mel Famey walk us.” (The beer that made Milwaukee famous.)

And there’s another joke about a piano tuner by the name of “Oburnokity” who would only tune a piano once. When asked why, he said, “Oburnokity only tunes once.”

#3 Malapropism – “The usually UNINTENTIONALLY humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially, the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context”

From a web site about malapropisms called Conan the Grammarian: “Mrs. Malaprop, for whom these misused words are named, was the leading lady in Richard Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals,’ a late eighteenth-century play about a lady whose husband came into some money and who was thrust into the uppercrud of society. Mrs. Malaprop did not want to seem out of place, so she simply used big words to appear genteel. Malapropisms are in the same class as spoonerisms and puns, but are not for the feint of heart.”

Examples of malapropism (quoted from another web site):

The man is an idiom.
He wears shoes made of stimulated alligator.
I resemble that remark!
We had a 15 inch erotic house plant in our living room.
I need the afternoon off to attend my brother’s consummation.
That’s a mute point.

So, I hope you all enjoyed these! And may your speech and writing be fiddled with run. I mean riddled with fun. And may you enjoy your next erotic vacation, oops, I mean exotic vacation on an island in the Pacific. Geesh!


Pop Quiz       1.) B  2.) A  3.) B  4.) B  5.) B  6.) A  7.) A  8.) A  9.) B  10.) A


About Taylor

Teacher/Writer/Word Nerd View all posts by Taylor

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