The Lapsus Calami of Principle for Principal

The third time I let the erroneous “principle parts” slip into a published post instead of the correct “principal parts,” I began to worry.

Why would I continue to make this mistake even though I know perfectly well that the word spelled principle is used only as a noun and never as an adjective? Principal, on the other hand, is usually an adjective, although it may also be used as a noun:

principle (noun): a fundamental truth; a rule adopted as a guide to action.

The desire to help the helpless is a basic principle of morality.
She lives according to the principle that it is always possible to be kind.

principal (adjective): most important; highest in rank or order.

Dr. Singh is the principal author of the study.
It’s necessary to memorize the principal parts of irregular verbs.

principal (noun): a person occupying the most important position in an organization or activity.

Mr. McCarthy has been named the principal in the lawsuit.
Ms. Washington is the principal at Jones School.

According to Sigmund Freud, when we make an error in speech (“a slip of the tongue”) or an error in writing (lapus calami), we are being guided by “a subdued wish, conflict, or train of thought guided by the ego and the rules of correct behavior.”

Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, say that such slips can be caused by mere inattention or lack of knowledge.

Knowing that my errors with principal/principle weren’t the result of lack of knowledge or inattention (I proof these posts at least six times before submitting them), I read further. I think I’ve found my answer in this explanation quoted in the Wikipedia article “Freudian Slip”:

[these errors may be caused by] the existence of some locally appropriate response pattern that is strongly primed by its prior usage, recent activation or emotional change or by the situation calling conditions.

My slip with principal/principle always occurs in the context of writing about the principal parts of the verb. And what are these parts? They are: present, past, past participle, and present participle. I think my brain anticipates the -le of the word participle.

That may explain why I write the term incorrectly, but why don’t I catch the error when I proofread?

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, says that it’s difficult to catch errors because the brain generalizes the simple components of sentences so it can focus on complex tasks, like combining sentences into ideas. We don’t catch errors because we don’t see them.

Writing about typographical errors, Freud cites a case in which an article had been carefully proofed by the author and the editor-in-chief of the paper in which it was to be published; both men were satisfied that everything was correct. The printer’s reader caught the mistake that the other men missed:

Our readers will bear witness to the fact that we have always acted in a selfish manner for the good of the community.

The intended word was unselfish.

Stafford suggests that one way to catch errors to which we’ve become blind is to change the font and colors of the proof copy; changing the visual form makes it easier to see details we would otherwise miss.

It’s also probably a good idea to acquaint yourself with your own particular bêtes noirs and be on the lookout for them. Things like mixing up principal and principle.

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Daily Writing Tips

Borne By, Borne On, and Borne With

The English word bear has so many definitions and uses that it could provide fodder for several posts. This article is about the use of the past participle borne followed by a preposition.

Here is the odd usage in my local newspaper that prompted this post:

there’s blame to be borne on everyone.

I looked on the Web to see if anyone else was using “borne on” in this way. I found these examples:

[Lack of fresh food] leads to lower lifespans in these areas, higher healthcare costs borne on everyone and general malaise.

And, we had people opting out of the system and waiting until they got sick to charge ER costs that were ultimately borne on everyone else. 

If you have seen the documentary The Corporation, you will be familiar with the economics term externalities — which are the external costs of any enterprise which are borne on everyone else but the enterprise itself.

Today most people think that [the expense of] having children should be borne on everyone else.

Blame and expense are borne by people, not on them.

Here are examples of the correct use of borne followed by the prepositions with, on, and by:

His wife has borne with his faults for fifty years.

The returning war hero was borne on the shoulders of two burly police officers.

The price increase was borne by consumers.

Borne is more poetic than mere carried. Fitzgerald used the word in the closing line of The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Borne often has the connotation that whatever is being carried–literally or figuratively– requires great effort:

Over the casket the great flag that had draped it [was] held widespread in the hands of the eight petty officers who had borne the heavy weight to its place.

She is a woman who has borne disappointment all her life.

Borne is used as a suffix to create words that have the sense of being carried or distributed:

Water-borne diseases are any illness caused by drinking water contaminated by human or animal faeces, which contain pathogenic microorganisms.

High in the sky, water in clouds can act as a temptress to lure airborne pollutants such as sulfur dioxide into reactive aqueous particulates.

The speaker who said, “There’s blame to be borne on everyone” was mixing up two ideas. Blame is placed on someone, but, once placed, blame is borne by the person blamed.

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Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t write to complain about the ubiquity of the word absolutely. The following objections to this word are typical:

Please answer a question without starting with the word “absolutely.” It’s driving me mad, please please stop.

What’s wrong with responding, “without a doubt,” “you bet,” “of course,” “for sure,” or simply “yes”?

It [strikes] me as ironic that perfectly good English words and phrases like “that’s correct” and “yes” [are] being usurped by the invasive “absolutely.”

Complaints about absolutely have been circling the Web for at least 18 years. It was on the Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words in 1996. It continues to be the object of wrath on many blog sites, and it made another appearance on the LSSU list in 2014.

Perceptions that absolutely as a synonym for “yes” is a recent tic have led people to speculate as to what or whom to blame for introducing it into popular speech. In 1996, a critic put the blame on the movie Rocky (1976). However, the citations in the OED indicate that absolutely has been used as an affirmation since 1825:

“Is it permitted me to ask your majesty whether the opinion of the queen is conformable to that of your majesty?” “Yes, absolutely; she will tell you so herself.” (1825)

“Is such really the state of matters between you and Rivers?” “Absolutely, sir!” (1847)

“Do you mean to say that if he was all right and proper otherwise you’d be indifferent about the earl part of the business?” “Absolutely.” (1892)

Absolutely is not confined to use as a word for “yes.” It is also used to modify words in every type of context, from baby clothes to wartime atrocities:

Fifteen Absolutely Darling Onesies

Pablo Hernandez scored an absolutely outrageous no-look back-heel against Atletico Madrid this evening.

The Absolutely Most Delicious Wrap and Sandwich Recipes Cookbook

Killing reporters during battles in southeastern Ukraine is absolutely unacceptable.

In each of these examples, absolutely is being used as an empty intensifier, the way awesome is so often used.

Sometimes absolutely is used functionally, as in this household tip:

Get all the clothes that you want to store absolutely clean and dry.

Here the meaning is, “to the fullest extent.”

In a 2009 article on the CNN website, Rex Bossert, an assistant dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, is quoted as blaming O.J. Simpson for introducing absolutely as the ultimate modifier. Bossert points out that when Simpson was arraigned in 1994 and was asked how he pled, he didn’t say simply “not guilty”; he said, “Absolutely, 100 percent not guilty.”

Why does a word that ranks so high among verba non grata continue to remain so popular?

The CNN article also quotes an account executive who has embraced absolutely as her word for “yes” because it sounds reassuring:

Absolutely sounds confident and sure. In times of ambivalence, people could use a bit of semantic surety. When you use it, you just feel more confident.

Unfortunately, many speakers perceive absolutely as the contrary of reassuring. In the view of one college student at the University of Oregon,

[Absolutely] now means “a lot of bull.” It’s like “whatever,” or “sure.” It grates on me when a professor or another student says “absolutely” because saying it means they’re a phony (2010).

Bottom line: Absolutely as both a synonym for “yes” and a meaningless intensifier will probably be with us for some time. Professionals need to be aware that promiscuous use of the word is annoying, and that many speakers view such use as evidence of insincerity, untrustworthiness, and mental vacuity.

vacuity (noun): complete absence of ideas; vacancy of mind or thought.

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Confused Words #2: Past and Passed

Two words that many English speakers confuse are past and passed.

The confusion between past and passed is understandable because they sound the same: [past].

The spellings have been confused for centuries, but modern speakers who have access to free dictionaries and universal public education may be expected to master the difference.

Passed is the past tense of the verb to pass.

Past is the spelling of four other parts of speech, but NEVER a verb.

Pass (the verb)
The verb pass has numerous meanings, among them,”to move or move on, to go by, to move or be transferred to the next place.” The principle parts are pass, passed, (have) passed. The verb is used both transitively and intransitively. Here are some examples:

You must study harder if you expect to pass your exams. (transitive)
Please pass me the salt. (transitive)
Did you pass? (intransitive)
Dorothea passed the bar exam last September. (transitive)
That reckless driver passed on the right. (intransitive)

Past (NOT the verb)
The word past can function as four parts of speech: noun, adjective, adverb, and preposition:

past (noun): time that has gone by. Usually preceded by the article the.
Example: It’s not a good idea to dwell on the past.

past (adjective): gone by in time.
Examples: They never dwell upon their past losses, except to learn from them. (attributive adjective)
Our relationship was mutually beneficial, but now it is past. (predicate adjective)

Note: An attributive adjective stands before a noun. A predicate adjective completes a being verb.

past (adverb): beyond
Example: He came to the haunted house and then ran past.

Related posts:
Past vs past
Confusing passed with past
Taking Another Pass at Past

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Indefinite Article With Initialisms

Note: An initialism is a group of initial letters, each pronounced separately, used as an abbreviation of a name.

Many English speakers who probably use the indefinite article an in front of a vowel when speaking seem to encounter a mental disconnect when it comes to writing.

The following examples were found on major news sites or on sites offering professional services or advice:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to a FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is a HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add a LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to a MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

A NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being a RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign a STMP server for this account?

The problem lies in an incomplete understanding of the rule for the use of a and an.

Many speakers retain the rule as “Use an before words that begin with a vowel and a before words that begin with a consonant.”

The complete rule is “Use an before words that begin with a vowel sound and a before words that begin with a consonant sound.”

The 26 letters of the alphabet are sound symbols, but the symbols have names. And several of the consonant letters have names that begin with vowel sounds:

F [ef]
H [aitch]
L [el]
M [em]
N [en]
S [es]
R [ar]

Here’s the correct way to write the words and initialisms given in boldface above:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to an FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add an LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to an MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

An NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being an RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign an STMP server for this account?

In deciding whether to write a or an in front of an initialism, say the name of the first letter. If the letter name begins with a vowel sound, use an.

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