Malapropism or Homonym Error, Cont.

You will recall that, in my most recent posting about homonym troubles,  I observed that a true homonym has a identical sound to another word but a different, perhaps greatly different, denotation or definition.

I also agreed with commenter”Yes, But . . . ” that the confusion recently in a newspaper’s column of “attribute” with “contribute” was not really a homonym error but rather a “malapropism” and that such an error more commonly occurs in spoken than in written or printed English.

It so fortuitously happens that a second recent example of that confusion can be found in the November 26 issue of our “Fayetteville Observer,” in the sports section, in a column by Dan Wiederer.  Now the trick here is sort of like a hypothetical question that, suggested by a certain someone whose name I’ve forgotten, should have been addressed about President Richard M. Nixon’s possible involvement in the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in :  “What did he know, and when did he know it?”

A newspaper reporter, I understand, has a difficult problem in dealing with the colloquial nature of the English language when used by a person who is being interviewed or otherwise quoted. If a witness to a crime says, and the audio record confirms it,  “I didn’t really seed what happened,”  does the reporter and his editor report the “seed” and make the witness seem uneducated and to some readers perhaps ignorant and therefore unreliable, or does the paper change the verb to “seen” and permit the witness to appear better educated in the use of the language that he really is?

In the November 26 instance,  Mr. Wiederer asks a rhetorical question of NC State Wolfpack basketball coach Sidney Lowe about the coach’s new goatee and whether that might be a factor in the team’s recent successes.  Lowe answers,  “I don’t know if I can contribute that to this right here (on my chin), . . . [b]ut maybe that’s something we’ll have to sort out.”

We are clear now that Lowe ought to, were he perhaps an English major like Jim Valvano was, or Joe Paterno is, have said “attribute” rather than “contribute.”

But he didn’t, apparently.  Was Wiederer right in keeping the word as spoken, or ought he have changed it?  Or perhaps he might have corrected Lowe on the spot, thus encouraging him to set an example for many other coaches, present and future, to take heed of.

What’s the deeper issue?

As a student of classical and neoclassical rhetoric, I  subscribe to the notion that correct grammar and usage are not just matters that are set up to annoy and frustrate malefactors, such as a parking ticket might, but that violations unbalance an entire system of checks and balances.  That system, it can be argued, was formed on, and continues to have, a bedrock foundation in ethics. 

That is,  we expect users to observe rhetorical honesty, semantic discipline, and “grammatical” integrity. 

The principles of ethics are relevant in the conduct of communication, which swarms around us via all the diverse media we use or are used by. These principles matter, mightily at times, especially when lies are said, are not refuted, and are repeated.  As history has shown again and again, the lives and welfare of millions of people, or perhaps even just one good person, can be endangered or even ended by such lies.

End of sermon.



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