Written by David Hatz, Retired Teacher and Coach
In my last blog I noted “the word ‘queue’ is just a ‘Q’ with four silent letters.” But the
word queue is also ironic because the four silent vowels that follow the “Q” seem to be waiting
in a line. Confused? Consider the definition of the word queue, per the Oxford English
Dictionary: “A line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to or to
proceed.” Or letters, in this case.
Speaking of dictionaries, they are a valuable (necessary) resource for even the best and
the brightest of readers and writers. While most people rely on them for definitions and to
check spelling, dictionaries also provide us with phonetic pronunciation(s), the plural form,
syllabic breakdown, and the etymology of a word.
Moreover, many words have multiple meanings. Occasionally, words have opposite
meanings and contradict themselves. Such a word is called a contronym (also contranym). e.g.,
sanction can mean “a penalty for disobeying a law” and “official permission or approval for an
Definition 1: The university handed down stiff sanctions to the fraternity for hosting a
party during the pandemic.
Definition 2: Juan hoped his boss would sanction the proposal so he could begin work
Now let’s visit some common, everyday words that are contranyms (yes, the plural is
spelled with an “a,” yet another quirk among the many in the English language).
The word left can mean either departed or remaining. Example: The ravenous Mr.
Mallory grabbed four slices of pizza and quickly left the room. Fortunately, one piece was left
for the late-arriving Mr. Hassey.
Dust is a noun turned into a verb that can mean either to add fine particles or remove
them. Example: Ms. Bristol dusted the dessert with powdered sugar as her final touch. Ms.
Allison was pleased to see her room had been dusted before Open House.
Bolt can mean to secure or to flee. Example: With all of her students seated, Ms. Perry
bolted her classroom door and then announced she would administering a pop quiz. One
unprepared student bolted by climbing out a window.
Trim can also mean either adding or taking away. Depending on who or what is being
readied, it can mean either of two contradictory things: “to decorate something with ribbons,
laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance” or “to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities
of.” And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree, are you using
tinsel or a chain saw? Example: Mr. Westlund’s baseball players were trimming the infield
grass, getting it ready for opening day. Meanwhile, Ms. Cabe’s ASB students were busy
trimming the tree in preparation for their Christmas party.
These are but a few examples of contranyms. If you are interested in seeing a more
expanded list, click on or cut and paste the following link:
Students Say the Darndest Things
One thing I (and most teachers, I suspect) learned early in our careers was to expect the
unexpected. A teacher can never be certain what a student will say.
Without knowing the background (for instance, whether the student was joking or being
serious), it is difficult to know whether to laugh, cry or sigh at the following exchange:
English Teacher: Name a book that made you cry.
Sorry, math teachers.
And to keep things light (pun intended), I’m going to close this article with a light bulb
Q. How many grammar cops does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None. A light bulb is not changed; it is replaced.