Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Compliment or complement? Homophones, part one

What in the world are homophones? Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but have different spellings--and different meanings. These pairs are different from homonyms, words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings. "Compliment" and "complement" sound alike, but they different spellings and different meanings, so they are homophones. The word "tire" is a homonym--even though it is spelled the same way, it can mean a part of a car or bicycle, or it can mean fatigue. While you might not really care what these crazy things are called, you really should care about how a difference in spelling changes meaning.

Believe it or not, "compliment" and "complement" were originally used interchangeably. Over time, the two words have come to have two different definitions. I listed "compliment" first because it more commonly used. "Compliment" with an "i" is something nice you say to someone. For example, "I love your blog" is a compliment. The way I remember to use "compliment" when I write, "Thank you for that lovely compliment," is by thinking that I like to receive compliments, and there is an "i" in the correct choice.

"Complement" has to do with making something complete. My husband's willingness to do dishes complements my love of cooking. In other words, when we are in the kitchen together, our strengths allow us to complete the task. If you have a necklace or a tie that is especially effective with an outfit, it complements it. People also will write about a "full complement." For example, "Microsoft Office and Apple Works both offer a full complement of computer programs." If you are writing about things that complete, you need to use "complement," and complete has two "e's" in its spelling.

Did you notice that my explanation focuses on writing? When we talk, we don't need to think about the fact that there are two different spellings, but it is important to know the difference when you are writing because you want to make the best impression possible.

Again, here are my tricks: I like to receive compliments, but to complement is to make complete.

This blog on homophones is the first of a series. Do you have any demons that you would like me to slay? Leave a comment or send me a message, and I'll try to help.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The semicolon, part two

Now that you have had a few weeks to digest the first lesson on semicolons, I'd like to offer you an additional option for using this sometimes maligned mark of punctuation. In the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (you all have copies on your desk, right?), there are six rules for the use of the semicolon. Here is Rule 6.60:
"In a series. When items in a series involve internal punctuation, they should be separated by semicolons."

Perhaps that rule isn't very clear. Let me try to explain just what it means. Have you ever been confused when reading a list? I would bet that the reason for confusion is because the writer included supplemental information in the list. What do I mean? It's easier to give examples than to explain.

Here is an example of a sentence that includes a confusing list:
Representing the United States are Joe Biden, Vice President, John Kerry, Secretary of State, Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.

Mind you, the above sentence is grammatically correct. You certainly may use commas to separate the items in the list and their titles, but when you read the list, you have to wonder just how many people are in attendance. To make this list easier to follow, use a colon AFTER the descriptor. I've underlined the semicolons to make them stand out.

Representing the United States are Joe Biden, Vice President; John Kerry, Secretary of State; Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense; and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.

Here is another example of using a semicolon in a series:
The trip includes stops in Dublin, Ireland; London, England; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece.

Another advantage of using the semicolon in this example is that it forces the writer to keep the list parallel. Notice that each item gives the name of city followed by the country rather than a hodgepodge of cities and countries. The reader knows exactly what the trip includes.

By using a different (and stronger) mark of punctuation to separate the items in a list, it is easier for the reader to grasp what you are trying to communicate. While it's easy to forget sometimes, our job as writers is to make our meaning clear. Punctuation is designed to help. If it doesn't help, then we need to either use punctuation differently or rewrite the sentence to make the meaning clear.