Scratch a fourth grade English teacher and you'll find someone obsessed with grammar. (Actually, scratch an English teacher and you'll get sent to in-school suspension. They don't like being scratched any more than the rest of us.)

In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce's 19th Century retort to his own fourth grade English teacher, Ambrose defines grammar this way: "n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet of the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction."

He isn't far from the truth, particularly with that "system of pitfalls" crack. How many of us have looked at a term paper bleeding red ink and wondered what in the world a "dangling modifier" actually was, or wanted to know who came up with the rule that we should use active rather than passive verbs unless we're writing love poems to that pretty red head sitting two rows up. (A love poem is precisely where I want to be active.) And who in the world said "hopefully" can't mean "I hope," since that's the way everyone in the world other than whoever made that rule actually uses it?

Of course, those staunch defenders of the rules for rules sake, Strunk and White would have looked askance at Bierce's definition, particularly since he defies their first rule, "Be brief." (The one thing we can be thankful to Strunk and White for is that they followed their own rules. Their book is blissfully short if not blissful.)

So, if we are to follow Strunk and White's rule about brevity, we might paraphrase Bierce with the following: "They're trying to make us feel stupid."

Perhaps the most unnecessary rules in Strunk and White are the rules about not mixing up homonyms, homophones, homographs. Don't worry about which is which. Just don't get them mixed up with homophobe. The homophone that got me the most mixed up in fourth grade English was "they're, there, and their." They sound the same but mean something different, though no one can tell us why. I lit on the solution of always using "there," figuring I'd be right a third of the time. As I might have expected, that didn't get me any farther than always guessing F on a true/false test, hoping I'd at least get 50 percent right.

Grammarians (a fancy name for fourth grade English teachers) might be gentler with the rest of us if they realized how much fun we can actually have with homophones. For instance, take the one homophone that shares four words. All four words can actually be used in a sentence together: The word wright did not trust himself to write right unless he went through his daily rite of checking Strunk and White. I wonder what my fourth grade English teacher would make of that?

For some reason, Strunk and White are concerned that we might mix up the word "affect" and "effect." There are many more words that I would be more concerned about mixing up. Emaciated and emancipated; prostrate and prostate; public and pubic; subscription and prescription; cavalry and Calvary. Any one of these is potentially more embarrassing if used incorrectly in public. (Some are embarrassing if used in public at all.)

My favorite mixed up words, though, are cosmology, the study of the universe, and cosmetology, the study of hair, or the cutting of hair. And you don't want to get entomology, the study of words, mixed up with etymology, the study of bugs. You don't want to get these mixed up.

Those at the other side of the word war, who sat at the back of class and probably had more in common with Bierce than with their fourth grade English teacher, call themselves punsters. For them homophones et al are a source of joy rather than a magnet for red ink. Use a homophone in their presence and they won't correct you-like a magician, they'll do tricks with it to their delight if not yours. (The unfortunate problem about puns is that they tend to tickle the punster's funny bone, but no one else's.

Here's an example from Pun-of-the-Day: "I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me." You start to understand why fourth grade English teachers slowly lose their sense of humor and take it out on the rest of us.