Thursday, February 4, 2010

How Do You Say It?

Sometimes when I’m reading, I come across a word or a phrase that just strikes me as wrong. The first time I encountered this particular phrase in a book, I assumed it was the author's error. But then I saw it again. When I saw the same thing a third time, I started wondering if maybe I was the one who was wrong. I even checked with an American friend of mine in case it was a Canadian thing but she said she understood it the same way I did.

Here’s what I’m talking about… what does this say to you… 'Uh huh'. When I look at that phrase, I pronounce it with the second word higher than the first. Low High. And when you say it that way, the higher note takes on a positive spin and the phrase comes out meaning ‘yes’. But in the book, there was no question the author meant it to mean, 'no'.

On the opposite side of the fence is the phrase 'Uh uh'. When I say this, I lower the second word and maybe even hold it with a little quaver. Low low. To me, this is a negative phrase meaning, ‘no’.

And then there’s this…  'Huh uh'. Again, I think it’s negative. Low low. What do you think?

On a different tact, twice now I’ve read the phrase, ‘He shook his head, yes.’ The first time I read it I stopped and said, say what? To me, shaking your head is a sideways-to-sideways motion meaning ‘no’. And nodding your head is an up-and-down movement signifying ‘yes’. So what’s this ‘He shook his head, yes’? I’ve read it twice now thinking it was an error. So you can imagine my surprise when I heard hubby saying it in a conversation.

And then there are the phrases I did say wrong for years. Like this one… ‘If that’s what you think, then you have another thing coming.’ And I continually hear and see other people using it. But it’s supposed to be, ‘If that’s what you think, then you have another think coming.’ You see, it makes sense in the sentence even though it sounds weird.

I found a neat site at which talks about the 100 Most Often Mispronounced Words and Phrases in English. Running down the list, the words ‘card shark’ caught my eye. Why would ‘card shark’ be on the list? I’ve used it many times although after seeing this, I’m glad I didn’t use it in my writing. Especially since I write Westerns. The word is actually ‘cardsharp’ as in someone who is sharp at playing cards or according to ‘a professional gambler, who cheats at card games’. Umm – okay – but card shark would work too, wouldn’t it?

And here’s one final one . . . ‘spitting image’. I’m sure you’ve heard this one – she was the spitting image of her mother. Nuh uh. (oh, there’s another one) The actual phrase is ‘spit and image’. It means the same thing which as says, is ‘The very spit of someone is an exact likeness’. But no projectiles are involved. The phrase probably derived from ‘spit ‘n image’ which is the way I say it but I always meant ‘spitting’. So yes, I've learned something here.

So, what do you think? Do you use these the way they were intended or are you fine with how they’ve evolved?

Photo Credits:
Tshirt -
Card Shark -
Spitting Fountain - UndergroundDemocratic


DebH said...

i'd have to say i've found myself confused with the same things you noted in your post. if i'm writing, i tend to just avoid those confusing little phrases and figure out a different way to have my character respond.
as for shaking one's head yes... i still think that's in error
as for the card shark and spitting image... i've used those phrases in error, not knowing the origins. i'll probably continue to do so just out of habit.

when my younger brother's children were born they were definitely the spit and image of him - so much so, someone told him "Well you just spit that one out right there, didn't you?" *heh*

sometimes you cannot fight the common vernacular. i remember when i was young, the saying "'ain't' ain't a word because it's not in the dictionary." It eventually made it's way into the dictionary (along with some other slang words commonly used).

i'm all for using words and phrases the way they were originally intended. it means one must educate herself and education is always a good thing, IMHO

Anita Mae Draper said...

Lol Deb, that quote about your nephew is too funny.

I think you hit it right on - education is a good thing but it's going to take time to break our habits, eh?

Love seeing you here. :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Very interesting post. I knew about the "another think coming" but not the others. I have no idea about the "Uh huh" thing. Honestly, I often find them confusing for just the reasons you cited. What exactly is the character trying to say anyway? While I'm trying to figure it out, I'm out of the story.

In the case of the "card shark" and the "spitting image", I wonder if these phrases, even though they are not technically correct, have become so widely used that they are now part of the vernacular. I knew exactly what you were referring to when you brought them up, but the phrase from which they originated is unfamiliar to me. When something is used all the time, does it replace the original?

On the other hand, you don't want to look like an idiot for using an incorrect phrase!

Helena said...

Very interesting post, Anita. I think that the expressions you have identified almost defy definition or even pronunciation. Some of the sounds that people make are from the throat, like a guttural grunt, or are muttered, and all a writer can do is give an approximation of the spelling plus some gestures to indicate the speaker's attitude or intention. How can a dictionary dictate the spelling of some of the sounds that come from a character's mouth?

Just my humble opinion, of course. Another one of those challenges facing writers as we try to keep our readers from popping out of the story with something that is either jarring or puzzling. As Jana noted, not what we want to happen.

Thanks for the link to the most frequently made mistakes -- some of them are hilarious, but some have entered the vernacular and almost deserve a 'yes' (with an explanation of its origin, of course).

I do not like the use of the expression "one off" because I believe it should be "one of" due to it being short for "one of a kind, or [insert whatever it is one of]" -- what do you think?

I have to keep reminding myself that characters are speaking in their own habitual patterns, complete with errors, so dialogue doesn't have to follow grammar rules, if I am being true to the character.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Always love posts like this, Anita. I've heard think vs. thing various times, but I don't think I'll ever worry about correcting myself overmuch. In speech, that one's just so much about the way the phonemes work off each other and the way we tend to make our pronunciations more efficient. It's another thing to spell the phrase improperly in writing, however it doesn't make the meaning of the phrase incorrect if it's written as thing. It's the sort of term where I think the line is blurring between accurate and old. Granted I'm always a fan of old phrasing, but there's also a reason a lot of our Anglo-Saxon-origin words don't match the old spelling now.

Love the link you provided. Some of those mispronunciations really baffle me, although I've heard them. I don't necessarily care if someone chops and alters words in speech, as long as they're written properly. It's the phrases like doggy-dog-world that get me. Another I hear now and then is gumshoe instead of gumption.

And in the typing-only realm of errors, I've actually been trying for a while to find a resolution to the 'make ends meet/meat' debate. It seems to have gotten so muddied that I can find 'authentic' origin explanations for both terms.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes, Jana, I'm sure they have and in the cases you mentioned, they make sense either way.

The thing is, one of the on-line dictionaries I looked at even used the expression 'card shark' and gave a professional gambler as the definition. So, it's already entering 'official' status.

However, when you're trying to make a career as a wordsmith, can you afford to 'look like an idiot' as you so aptly put it.

Thanks for your insight, Jana.

Anne Germaine said...

Ohh...Great post Anita! I often write around the phrase I want to use because I'm not confident on the meaning or don't know how wide spread it is.

As a child I used to say "play it by year" -- as in wait and see how it all turns out, a year seemed a little long but made sense. (A musical person would understand "play it by ear", but I am not the least bit musical!)

Thanks for the link!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Helena - you're right. I love using the word harumph but it doesn't even look like it sounds never mind trying to find it in a dictionary.

Yes, I think, 'one of' vice 'one off' as well.

Good point about the dialogue. It's like a loophole out of the rules, isn't it? :)

Thanks Helena. Good points.

Anita Mae Draper said...

I agree with you and Helena about some of the words on that list - they just come from laziness where people are slurring their words and joining them together.

I think I even follow a guy on twitter who comes out with a new 'blended' word each day although I don't know if he makes it up himself or just passes it on. If he keeps it up though, he'll double our vocabulary!

Gumshoe for gumption - really? I think of Magnum when I see gumshoe. Not a good thing when I'm supposed to be thinking about Dan. ;)

'make ends meat'? Really? Never saw that one coming. Wouldn't use it, either. But that's just me.

Thank you Hayley. I really enjoy your take on these kinds of posts although I cringe when I first see your name. (From an academic standpoint only) LOL

Anita Mae Draper said...

Anne - watching my boy muddle through his piano lessons, I'm sure he was thinking 'play it by year' too. LOL

When you think about it, some poor bloke learning english as a second language is sitting there thinking, 'play it by ear'? I mean look at all the piano players who play it with their feet, elbows, forehead, butt... why not the ear?

Well, there's a bright spot in my day. Thanks. :)

Gina Welborn said...

Anita, I've decided "uh huh, huh uh, and uh uh" won't ever be used in one of my storiesb because to the risk of misreading is too great. I had to verbally say each to hear the difference.

Shaking is one of those weird actions. Shaking a hand is an up and down movement, yet shaking a head, to me, is a left-right movement. Nodding is up and down.

So I wouldn't have anyone shake his head then say yes. Doesn't fit for me.

My current peeve is using plural to sound politically correct. "If someone wants to wear flip flops in the winter, let them."

No, it should be let him. Or let her.

Still in movies, tv, commericals/ads, books, etc, I see the plural used. Uggh.

Karyn Good said...

I always get confused by the hu huh's and the huh ah's or any other kind of grunting or humming responses.

And I had to laugh at your 'you've got another think coming' inclusion. I used that phrase in my contest submission pages and one judge corrected me saying I should have used 'thing' instead. Ha! Once in a blue moon I am right :)

Great post, Anita.

Janet said...

Great post, Anita - generating lots of discussion. I always look at a phrase in my writing that I think may be misinterpreted, or that I'm not sure of the origin and pronunciation, and check it with various searches on the web. If I can't find a definitive answer, I find a better word or phrase. I don't want anyone stuttering through my manuscript, and being pulled fromt the story I'm trying to tell.

As a reader, it has to be really out there for me to stop and consult or question. I speed read - phrase read - whatever you want to call it. It really has to stand out for me to notice.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Gina, you're right about the shaking hand. I never thought of it before. Hmmm I guess there is some credence to the mix-up then.

Well, considering that you seem to be the 'queen' of the contest judges, you would know, eh. :)

I freely admit to using 'someone' and 'them' together but that's because I'm too lazy to say 'him or her' all the time. Since I'm getting my Genesis entry ready for you to check over, my Inky sister, I think I'll make an extra read through for that one.

Thanks for visiting, Gina. I always welcome your experienced opinions.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn - Because of the looming Genesis contest, the Inkies have been discussing ridiculous judges' comments and how some of them comment without knowing. I guess your judge would fall into that category.

I distinctly remember telling the Inkies that if I were a judge, I'd be sure to research first before making a comment like that.

Well, guess what? Gina latched onto that admission and I believe she's adding me to her list of judges for the next contest she's co-ordingating. *sigh

I knew you were going to start entering contests, Karyn, but I didn't know you actually did. I'd sure like to talk further about it with you. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Me too, Janet. I spend so much time trying to find the perfect word or phrase. But I'm always thrilled with the result. :)

Well, I don't speed-read, and it doesn't take much to pull me out of a story, but it's rare I discard a book because of it. If I do find something wrong though, I want to rush an email off to the author and let him or her know I found it. I did once but I won't do it again. I guess it's because I'm starting to see over the fence and thinking of all those emails I'll get when it happens. Heh.