Grammar Moses: Ocaydoquay!

I rarely dip my toe into the pronunciation pool because there is so much variety, much of it owing to the speaker’s place of birth and upbringing.

However, if you’re one to say “nuke-yu-lurr” or “jew-lery,” I’m going to have to keep you after class.

Kate Gingold, who last year sent me a copy of her book, “Agatha Annotated,” is working on a presentation for the Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay, England, this fall, and she inspired me to cautiously dip my toe in the topic.

When I tell you she’s working on it in Key West, you’ll begin to understand where I’m going.

What do the words “key,” “cay” and “quay” have in common?

Your first thought might be that they all have to do with water. A “key” is a small coral island.

A “cay” is also a small coral island.

A “quay” is a dock or wharf to which you tie your boat. You’ll find them in harbors, on lakes and alongside keys and cays.

So, they do have water in common. But an even greater link is that they are all pronounced “key.”

“Cay” is the variant used a lot in the Caribbean, based on the Spanish word “cayo,” the word for a barrier reef.

This is probably the most difficult set of homophones I’ve come across. But in a way, the more different the spelling, the easier it is to recognize and differentiate them. I still have to think pretty hard before committing to “loath” or “loathe,” “chord” or “cord,” “council” or “counsel” and “principal” or “principle” because they look so similar.

By the way, it is pronounced “tore key,” Kate. Just start out your speech with “Hello, tore key! How are you all feeling?” You’ll have the crowd eating out of your hand.

On a more serious note

I recently read about efforts to remove violence from a variety of standard phrases. This is particularly important for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and general bullying.

I’m on board with this. If someone who has been subjected to such horrible treatment is reminded of their trauma because of or simply distressed by such words and phrases, then avoiding their use is the kind thing to do. It shows empathy.

If you’re waiting for a punchline here, there isn’t one. I’m serious. And see, I just inadvertently used one. I thought about editing out “punchline,” but I left it to show just how prevalent they are in everyday conversation and writing. Take this from a guy who faces “deadlines” daily.

Here are some examples, as laid out by the Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance: When push comes to shove, take a stab at it, soften the blow, shot in the dark, beats me, pushed over the edge, get away with murder, killing time, riding shotgun, twist your arm, at the end of one’s rope. The list goes on.

Say you’re speaking at a funeral, where you know your entire audience is grieving. You know not to denigrate the dearly departed; that would be hurtful to everyone in the room.

Similarly, you know not to curse at a child’s birthday party (as much as you might want to) or talk about your exploits with the bride when giving the best man speech at a wedding. You know all of these things would be inappropriate and hurtful.

So many of us have been subjected to some sort of violence (mental and physical) in our lives, and many of us have not disclosed it to anyone. It’s always safer to assume someone has been harmed in some way and at least make an effort to lighten up on the kind of language that might cause further pain.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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