Grammar Moses: Contradicting myself

Last week’s column looked at the emergence of “unthaw” as a synonym for “thaw” owing to misunderstanding the definition.

“’Ravel’ and ‘unravel’ also mean the same thing,” wrote Anastasia Terovolas. “It’s enough to drive an English major to eat an entire bar of chocolate.”

I’m not sure I need that level of aggravation to polish off an entire bar of chocolate, even if it’s one of those comically-large triangular prisms known as a Toblerone bar.

There are words that can provide even greater confusion: those that have contradictory meanings.

They’re called “contronyms.”

Anastasia’s email made me think of “ravel.” While “ravel” and “unravel” can be used interchangeably, “ravel” itself means to thread together AND also to disentangle.

Boy, is context important when using a contronym.

If you go to a tailor and simply ask your dress to be “trimmed,” you could end up with something that’s a bit too cheeky for the mother of the bride or you could have a dress that’s bedazzled or has tufts of taffeta all over it. To “trim” a piece of clothing is to both add fabric to it and to take some of it away.

If you “draw” the drapes, you could be opening them or closing them. If you’re a vampire, it’s important to be specific about drawing the drapes in the morning.

“Dusting” for fingerprints entails the whirling of fine powder on surfaces in search of evidence. “Dusting” in my house consists of a light brushing away of dust, pollen and cat dander from surfaces at least once a year — whether it’s needed or not.


Another topic I waded into last week — with great trepidation — was pronunciation.

“Your column reminds me of a fifth-grade homework assignment I had in 1965,” wrote Jeanne Coleman. “We were to look up the correct pronunciation of the word ‘often.’ At that time there was only one pronunciation listed. The lesson learned was that the “t” was silent. ‘Often’ was often mispronounced. Today, I am sometimes questioned as to why I don’t pronounce the ‘t’.”

Jeanne, I think you can blame cable TV for this phenomenon. I watch a lot of British TV series, because I find them inherently smarter, more interesting and edgier than those on American TV. And I can find them on BritBox and Acorn. Back in 1965, we didn’t yet have “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Fawlty Towers,” “Upstairs, Downstairs” or even Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, on American TV. Many of us who grew up in the 1960s didn’t know what English people sounded like. If closed captioning had been available in 1964, Ed Sullivan’s producers would have probably used it when the Beatles first appeared.

I say all this because my Anglophile leanings tell me the English often pronounce “often” with the “t” sound. As more people are exposed to British English they tend to harvest wee bits that sound interesting (or that might make them sound smart, if I’m honest.) People also learn language from their parents — for good or bad. This is why some people in the U.S. “go on holiday” these days instead of taking a vacation.

In the same way that “Crocodile Dundee” prompted people to talk about putting more shrimp on the barbie, the fire hose of good British TV being loosed upon America has blurred the lines between American English and British English.

By the way, dictionaries from the U.S. and English now provide for both pronunciations.

Jeanne was not done with me yet.

“Based on what I hear regularly, I fear the day is coming when the nominative ‘I’ and the objective ‘me’ are sanctioned as interchangeable,” she wrote. “Common usage does not equal correctness, merely acquiescence.”

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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