Grammar Moses: How about a little gutter talk?

Updated 11/10/2018 4:37 PM

I wrote recently about homophones. This week, thanks to dedicated reader Linda J., I'll be talking about homographs.

As a refresher, a homograph is a word that has the same spelling as another word but is pronounced differently and has a different meaning.


Linda mailed me a note along with a headline clipping that read: "Quilts of Valor sewers at an Elgin church envelop veterans with comfort and healing."

I know what you're thinking.

"After I stopped laughing, I remembered several other overlooked gaffes in recent days and I wonder, what's going on?" Linda wrote.

I hate to sound defensive, Linda, but we're both right.

People who sew (notice I wrote "people" and not "women") are called "sewers." That rhymes with growers, not brewers.

We might have been able to use "seamstresses," but I can't be certain it was only women who did the sewing. The story didn't mention any men, but it's always better for a copy editor to be safe than sorry.

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I've done some cross-stitch and crewel embroidery in my day, and my mother failed miserably at teaching me to knit (I think she was concerned I might not be able to survive in a zombie apocalypse without advanced home ec skills.)

I would take umbrage if someone called me a seamstress.

But Linda's point is not lost on me. While it's pretty easy to discern through the context of the headline (quilts) and the big picture of a veteran draped in a quilt that we aren't talking about waste pipes here, the word likely stopped a few readers in their tracks and elicited a few giggles. And that's not good.

"Sewers" is a word that's been around for centuries and is favored by experts in the field, though "sewists" as a gender-neutral noun is gaining some traction but still not favored by dictionaries.

Words in the news

Before pipe bombs started making their way to post offices, all we could seem to talk about was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's DNA.

I am neither a geneticist nor a mathematician, so I will not enter the fray on whether Warren has more or less Native American blood than I. But permit me to discuss a word that was thrown around as if we had all learned it in the Weekly Readers of our youth.


A group led by Carlos Bustamante, the Stanford University geneticist who took a peek at a skosh of Warren's DNA, concluded that "while the vast majority of the individual's ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual's pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago."

This takes some unraveling.

While there are many definitions of admixtures, they all deal with the mixing of something with something else and getting a new result.

In the world of concrete, for instance, there are additives that when incorporated with the basic ingredients of cement, water and aggregate make it slower or faster to cure, stronger or more flexible.

In the world of genetics, an admixture occurs when two or more previously isolated and genetically differentiated populations begin breeding with one another. Admixture results in the introduction of new genetic lineages to a population.

In Warren's case, then, the conclusion is that there was a purebred (forgive the crass feel of that term) Native American in her lineage many, many generations ago.

The second word in the news brings me back to the arrest of the Florida man accused of mailing out the bombs.

When asked when investigators found a fingerprint that led them to their suspect, FBI Director Christopher Wray replied, in part, that the bombs "were coming kind of seriatim."

"Seriatim" means "in series." First, the bombs addressed to the Obamas and Maxine Waters came in, then others.

Who says Latin is a dead language?

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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