Monday, August 01, 2005

Watch your language!

Last month I read a newspaper article that referred to a handsome movie star riding a motorcycle with "a beautiful model hanging onto his waste." Yuk! Thanks to spelling checkers we no longer see many spelling errors, but more than ever we are seeing the wrong homonym used. Here are a few examples I saw just in the last month:
  • "School stationary" -- on the cover of a stationery catalog intended for, of all people, educators. [Should be stationery = that which comes from a stationer, whose original job was chaining expensive books to their station to prevent theft.]
  • "This will please your pallet" -- on an elaborate glossy flyer explaining in upscale terms why Papa John's pizza is so much better than its competition. [Should be palate = part of the mouth.]
  • "We don't have a special rate per say" -- in an e-mail from an upscale arts organization. [Should be per se = (Latin) "as such".]
  • "[the car] careered round the harepin bends...and plunged over the cliff." -- from a famous newspaper columnist. [Should be hairpin = mountain road made up of long straight sections joined by sharp corners and thus resembling hairpins.]
  • "Ron's Restaurant, formally Joe's and Flo's" -- expensively-painted sign outside local restaurant. [Should be formerly = in former (previous) times.*]
Some words that people confuse don't even sound the same. I often see "except" where "accept" is intended, such as "We don't except cheques." And I've lost track of how many times I see "affect" and "effect" used interchangeably, even by well-educated people.

The church I currently attend has abandoned hymnbooks in favour of a digital projector, and those who type the words into the computer sometimes seem to be cobbling together a brand-new theology. One song said "I'm excepted by God", which brought to mind the ancient practice of selling indulgences. Another song confused nudity with infertility, asking God to cure our "spiritual bareness". After calling up I was able to persuade the operator to let me correct the spelling to "barrenness".

In fact, the hardest job these days is persuading people that errors like these even matter. Yet just go back and read that first paragraph again -- all the romance goes out of the mental image when that last, awful word arrives to wreck the sentence. And the yuppie intentions of the pizza flyer were completely deflated by the mental image of a fork-lift truck moving bulk pizza ingredients stacked on the wooden platforms they mistook for their customers' taste buds.

And when an error changes the entire meaning of the sentence it's in, it's no longer just embarassing but could be an expensive business problem. Of course, one could always put a disclaimer on every document; how about this one, which I've actually seen on a document: "errors and omissions accepted"?

* 2008 update: perhaps Ron reads my blog; "formally" has now changed to "formerly" on his sign.

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