Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's just spelling

The estimable Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe, whose column and blog I heartily endorse, keeps encountering some kind of obstacle in posting comments here. This comment on misused words came in an e-mail, which I am pleased to publish:

I'm on a mini-campaign to get people to remember that "confusions" like there/there and then/than are not actually semantic confusions, like infer for imply or flaunt for flout, but simply misspellings. Of course I care about spelling, but the people who think a mistake like "bigger then me" means the writer doesn't know "then" from "than" are truly confused. I wrote about it (briefly) in January (with itals in original, of course):

True, then for than is a fairly common spelling error, and one that spellcheckers don't catch. Then and (unstressed) than sound almost the same, and like other homophone pairs, they can be hard to keep straight. But then for than, like principle for principal, is not a confusion of sense -- it's just a spelling error.

For some reason, though, the Confusable Words industry -- dozens of websites use that label -- wants to scare us into thinking of spelling mixups as serious misunderstandings. "Check your dictionary," they intone. "Use than to make a comparison. Use then when referring to time."

But this is ludicrous. The person who types "he's bigger then me" isn't accidentally using then, the word that refers to time; he's just spelling than the way it sounds. In fact, than was often spelled then until the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "I had rather be a doore keeper in the house of my God, then to dwell in the tents of wickednesse," reads the psalm in the 1611 King James Bible.

Should students (and journalists) learn to spell correctly? Of course. But there's no need to overreact. The writer who mixes up hanger and hangar needs a spelling tip, not a brain transplant. ...


  1. Perhaps what we really need is to teach people to speak more clearly and listen more closely, as "then" and "than" shouldn't be true homophones. I attended an acting conservatory where we didn't learn any spelling, but we would have gotten as poor marks for mistaking the pronunciation of those words as a writing student would get for mistaking the spellings.

  2. "Confusions" like there/there...

    Yeah, that one gets me every time. (There there, there is no there there...)

  3. Oh, don't even open up that dialect pronunciation door. For far too many speakers of English spelling doesn't reflect sound - Mary, marry, merry; for instance, or pin, pen; saying ""then" and "than" shouldn't be true homophones" may work for you, but "should" is a very dicey word to use when applied pronunciation. Very dicey.

    And I agree. I refuse to believe someone who writes "You're book was good" really thinks he's saying "You are book was good"...

  4. Part of the problem is that you cannot distinguish between the innocent mistyping or misuse and the lack of basic education. It may indeed be an innocent error or it may be indicative of a lack of education or, worse, a lack of caring. After all, it is only "just spelling."

    Retired in Elkridge

  5. Another triplet that spell-checkers won't catch: palate/palette/pallet.

  6. I don't think principle/principal is just spelling. Sometimes, writers truly don't know the difference. But it is true that persnickety readers seize on typos, rather than give the writer the benefit of the doubt. For copy editors, though, typos are a plague as bad as misused words.

  7. Thus George Bernard Shaw wins.

    Perhaps I'm guilty of pedantry in my previous comment about fare/fair. But if the word as it's spelled actually changes the meaning and sense, it looks like ignorance and confuses an audience. Both are bad for the publication.

    "Reagan Goes for Juggler in Midwest"

  8. Back when I was working (and typing a lot more and a lot faster than I do now), I would often find that I would type the one (of a pair of homophones) that occurred most often in the types of reports our company produced. Certain reports require seemingly unending repetition, and your fingers just get so used to the word, and I think my fingers go faster than my brain does and actually follow the sound in my head before my brain can edit their motion on the keyboard. I think I still do it sometimes with common homophones when one is one I use more often than the other. I know the difference, but my fingers obviously have a mind of their own. It's fascinating (to me at least--i.e., how we are even able to type). Ah! There's one I often type incorrectly even though it takes an extra stroke (it's), simply because I use that far more often than "its."

    I also think scientists have yet to discover the true cause of over-eating, because once I was given a medicine that I swear caused my arm and hand to have a mind of its own: It would grab any (even disgusting) food in sight and stuff it down my throat even though I was already over-full to the point of nausea. I stopped that drug very quickly (because I thought my stomach might explode), and the weird arm-creature stopped force-feeding me. There is a switch in the brain somewhere that goes directly to our hands bypassing all "executive" control, and I suspect it's connected to our ability to type and cases of over-eating.

  9. It's true that "personal infer" is a semantic matter, but far from clear that it's a confusion: it seems to me a legitimate extension of the sense that MWCDEU calls "More 1533". See this Language Log post.

  10. The thing to remember, it seems to me, is that a spelling error is indeed an error. Nobody (that I know) says they're okay. They're just not symptoms of some massive apathy, or ignorance, or plot to destroy language.

    If I wouldn't notice it if I heard it (as opposed to reading it) I tend to discount its importance.

    (That said, when we correct translations, if the "error" is a valid English word, we mark it off even if we know which word the student meant. After all, the reader of the translation will not have the original in his head like we do...)