First: I yield to no man in my respect and affection for my students at Boston University.

Second: During my five years as a mass communication professor at BU, I’ve noticed a grammatical phenomenon in the writing of said students.


Very often in their papers, students use the wrong word – but it rhymes with the right word.

Representative samples:

astutely aware for acutely aware

consul for counsel

conscious for conscience

dribble for drivel

reticule for ridicule (despite what you’re thinking, reticule is actually a word. It means “a woman’s drawstring handbag”)

menial for minimal

safety belt for safety net

captain for caption (couldn’t figure out if that was just a typo until -oops – it appeared for a second time)

My theory: the students have never read these words and phrases. They’ve only heard them.

And then their ears fail them.

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9 Responses to Rhyme-onyms

  1. Curmudgeon says:

    Is this a commentary on the quality of the education coming through the high school systems of this country?

    Our schools are doing very, very well! You need only to look at the huge amounts of money poured into them to know that the MUST be doing things right!

    How dare you pick on these poor students who don’t know left from write!

  2. Bill says:

    Oh, this is sooo embarrassing. I thought you were a professor if miscommunication. It all makes sense now…

    I’ve been a big fan of your for years. Thank you.

  3. Michael Pahre says:

    Dear Capt. Caption,

    In writing this dreadful post, you have done minimal menial labor. This drivel dribbled out of your fingers so badly that I fear your conscience is not conscious. Shouldn’t someone as astute be acutely aware that they need consult the consul for counsel?

    I fear for your students who will now suffer your linguistic belt-tightening and have no academic safety net to protect their grades.

    OK, now you can go back to analyzing popular culture — such as the car insurance ad with a man holding a reticule which you, no doubt, ridicule.

  4. Jesse Baer says:

    Interesting theory. I’ve noticed the inverse phenomenon: people my age (yes, including me) mispronouncing words we’ve only read in print (or, more likely, from a screen).

  5. Moe Joe says:

    Actually, most of the pairs of words that you cite do not actually rhyme. My theory: the blogger never actually learned what a rhyme is. And the blogger doesn’t know what grammar is, because he calls vocabulary errors “a grammatical phenomenon,” even though they have little to do with grammar.

    Face it, if you’re going to boast that you’re a professor, and slam your students for writing poorly, you should at least summon up a hint of a clue, lest you show your abject cluelessness. And please, learn to use a dictionary.

    The post was apparently intended to draw attention to the students’ failings. It ended up drawing even more attention to the professor’s incompetence.

  6. thelizwhite says:

    I actually have a chronic problem with this, particularly with actual homonyms (although the rhyme-onym phenomenon is really interesting). I tend to think of it as a reversion to speech mechanisms – which are theoretically instinctual – from writing mechanisms – which is more of a learned process – when one is overly stressed or tired.

    In defense of struggling BU students, I’m inclined to chalk this up to our over-strained little minds rather than to ignorance. Besides, we get exposure to most of those phrases in out TV guides and video game walk-throughs. 🙂

  7. thelizwhite says:

    Whoops! I meant “our” TV guides. Thanks to BU, even my jokes need proofing.

  8. MRP says:

    I get your drift, but don’t really see this as a rhyming problem (these words don’t really rhyme). Some of these are “eggcorns,” which is a word substituted for another that sounds similar (it comes from “eggcorn” for “acorn”) or possibly “mondegreens” (words that have been misheard, as people commonly do with song lyrics). There’s an Eggcorn Database: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/

  9. Pingback: The Wall Street Journal Finally Catches Up With Campaign Outsider (Rhyme-onyms Edition) | Campaign Outsider

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