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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