25 Oct 2016
The Importance of Being Earnest, or should that be Ernest?
We would love to say that this article is about the famous Oscar Wilde play, ‘a trivial comedy for serious people.’
It’s meant to demonstrate another of the quirks of the English Language that you’ll come across on your journey learning to read, write, and, particularly in this case, speak English.
We’re talking about homonyms.
This is where a word sounds exactly the same when you pronounce it as another, but can have a different meaning and totally change the meaning of a sentence
We all know that Ernest is (usually) a male first (or christian) name, but what if Wilde was talking about the importance of being a person called Ernest instead of it’s true title ‘The Importance of Being Earnest?’
Earnest can be an adjective (descriptive word) meaning serious – ‘the two boys were in earnest conversation’ or
it can be used in a phrase, for example ‘the work really began in earnest on Tuesday!’
Take another example.
Imagine talking about doctors.
In some cultures, so-called witch doctors are entrusted with health care entirely. Nothing wrong with that at all, however, look at these two examples:
- Which doctor was it?
- Witch doctor, was it?
In the first instance, it could be that the receptionist at your local medical is asking WHO (which) doctor you saw.
In the second example, somebody could be looking at a wound that perhaps is healing slowly or looks particularly nasty & wondering (probably in jest) whether you saw a WITCH doctor or some other (maybe) less qualified professional.
Upon seeing the questions written, it’s clear what’s meant but hearing them, you could be forgiven for being confused.
Of course, these are somewhat extreme examples but here’s a few more for you to think about:
- Bawled (to cry) & bald (to have no hair)
- Aisle (a passageway, on an aircraft) & Isle (and island)
- Gorilla (large ape) and Guerrilla (military soldier)
There are literally dozens of examples and there are traps, too – one of the most common (especially in today’s web & social media based world is our old favourite too, two and to, not forgetting their, they’re and there, which where discussed in a previous post.
We couldn’t resists finishing with a homonym based joke:
“How do you comfort a spelling and grammar fan?”
“There, Their, They’re!”
We know it’s a little bit lame, but a lot of gentle humour in the English Language is based on homonyms – people, can (and do) make careers from it!
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