Why do words used wrongly bug us so much?

I recently read a comment on a blog post by a commenter named Mike Dobson that explained, to me, why it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to read a sentence like this:

There cats food was really smelly.

The reason? Those of us who complain learned how to read books, on paper, before the advent of the Internet. We were raised with quality writing that had been edited by editors who knew what they were doing. So when we run into a misspelling like this, it derails our reading process. It makes us go back and re-read to see if we missed something. It’s like when a completely unbelievable plot point shows up in a TV show or a movie – instead of staying in the story, we end up screaming at the screen, “That is so stupid! That can’t happen!”

A follow-up comment by another poster, Lindsey Stafford, opined that people who habitually use sound-alike words in this random fashion do so because they hear every word as they read it, and the sound of the word is what’s important to them. Who cares whether it’s “there,” “their,” or “they’re” on the page if it sounds like the right sound in their head? Meanwhile, those of us who get annoyed with the misuse and misspelling of sound-alike words don’t hear the words as we read them; we experience them visually, as representations of an idea.

To me, the solution is obvious: make people read more books. Not webpages; books. Actual books, printed on paper, with edited words in them.

I now have a new reason to say to my students: READ MORE BOOKS. It will help you spell better.

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I’ve Got A Little List…

Well, actually, I’ve got an absolutely enormous list. This list is composed of words – misused words. Words that were used with the best of intentions and left screaming in agony as they were put into a sentence that was rendered amusing, meaningless, or horrifying by their misuse. Words that were typed incorrectly and, due to the vagaries of the spell-checking software and my students’ inability to identify the mistaken word, were wronged and wrongly used.

Since shared pain is lessened, I’ve decided that I have to share. This blog exists so that I can vent my annoyance at all the many, many misused words that my students use in their classwork. I plan on dedicating a short entry to each misuse each time that I run across one. That’s the limit on my posts: this blog will only see a new post when one of my students produces a new gaffe.

I will not identify my students in any way, shape or form. Nor will I identify the school or schools I for which I teach. But through this blog, I hope to give myself a space to vent about badly used words, as well as provide a service for people who honestly do not know their effect from their affect.

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