#amwriting: homonyms and honorifics

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDAn editor once told me, “If you’re going to use grammar improperly, at least have the decency to misuse it consistently.” Since that day, I have made every effort to do so.

However, as a reader, I like to see that the author and editor both had a good grasp of the basics, and if a book is written with too many inconsistencies it ‘s hard to get involved in it.

We are all guilty of typos, homonym misuse, and the occasional comma splice. We sometimes are inconsistent with the words “sir” and “Son.” We make every effort to have our work read by editors and proofreaders, and still, invariably, some glaring blot of darkness sneaks through because certain aspects of the English language are as difficult to wrangle as a van full of toddlers on coca-cola.

One thing I’ve regularly noticed people have trouble with is the proper use of terms of endearment, such as “Sir,” or “Dad,” and “Mom.” The rules are basically simple to remember:

For people who are related, if you are saying it directly to them in place of their name, capitalize it.

  • “I love you, Son.”

If you are mentioning them in conversation, don’t capitalize it.

  • “My son is wonderful.”

Terms of endearment can also be relatively impersonal, denoting a friendship, or can even be slightly patronizing. If the speaker is not related to the person in question, do not capitalize it.

  • “I wouldn’t do that, son.”

Then there is the issue of the word “sir.” It is an honorific. Quoted from the Chicago Manual of Style section 8.32:

Honorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context with several exceptions:

  • sir

  • ma’am

  • my lord

  • my lady

Where king/queen, Lord, or Sir is used as part of someone’s name, it is always capitalized, as are these honorifics:

  • King Olav, and Lucille, the Queen of Darkness
  • Lord John Davies; Lady Mary Shelton
  • Sir William Neville

Where king/queen is employed in the context of a general reference it is lowercased:

  • “Hello,” said the king.

But should one capitalize the word “sir” when it’s used in dialogue? Which of the following would be correct? “Yes sir.” OR “Yes Sir.”

If the reply is to a respected person in general, it is written with no capital, as it’s not a formal name. But you do need a comma just you would with a formal name:

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, George.”

For a more in-depth exploration of that subject see my post of March 14, 2016: son and sir: to capitalize or not?

When writing dialogue: if your speaking character is in the military and the person he/she is addressing has a military rank above them, and is speaking in their military capacity you must capitalize it. The exception to this is if a younger person of lesser rank is talking to an older person of higher rank in an informal setting. At that point, the younger person is simply speaking respectfully to an older person, and “sir” does not need to be capitalized.

Remember, English is a strange and mysterious language, and is one even which even native-born speakers rarely master. While it has rules, it has many exceptions to those standards, so it is easy to be confused. Your word-processing program’s spell checker won’t notice these things because they aren’t misspelled.

to lie means to restHomophones: Words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled and Homonyms: Words that sound alike, but have different meanings:

  • there, they’re, their
  • to, too, two

It’s also good to recognize homographs (words that share the same spelling) that have different pronunciations and meanings. These words include:

  • desert (to abandon) and desert (arid region)
  • tear (to rip) and tear (a drop of moisture formed in the eye)
  • row (to argue or an argument) and row (as in to row a boat or a row of seats—two words which are also a pair of homophones)
  • bark (the sound of a dog) and bark (the skin of a tree)

Capitonyms are words that share the same spelling but have different meanings when capitalized. They may or may not have different pronunciations. Such words include:

  • polish (make shiny) and Polish (from Poland)
  • march (walk or advance) and March (the third month of the year in the Gregorian calendar)

chicago manual of styleNegotiating the shoals of English grammar can be tricky, and it’s easy to get a fortune tied up in reference books. However, if you are on a tight budget, these two good references will help immensely with gaining some mastery of it:

I always recommend these two as they are the most comprehensive examples of their kind, and good, lightly used volumes are sometimes available second hand through Amazon.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an excellent reference book if the Chicago Manual of Style is too daunting for you, as it’s not nearly as detailed and does hit the high points, and old copies are always available in second-hand bookstores.

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