Sunday, November 14, 2004

What Causes Homonym Errors?

Kevin Drum, who writes the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, wonders, after reading a post by Matthew Yglesias on the same topic, about the causes of hononym errors. As a person who makes dozens of homonym errors a day in any one draft then send writing that I do, this kind of wondering outloud is a welcome diversion.

Why do homonym errors seem more relevant? Why don't I catch more of my own, especially since I make these so often: their/they're; here/hear; to/too; its/it's. I make these all the time and I know I'm going to make them, and I look for them as I write, but I miss about half of them.

A chart such as this one listing and explaining homonym errors doesn't help me. Here is why, and it's not an excuse, but an observation of my own habits as a one draft writer:
  • By my own rough estimate, 90 percent or better of what I write, in terms of both volume of words and time spent writing, is done either in email or in a blog, with most of that, some 90 percent again, being in email.
  • Email for me, with rare exceptions, is one-draft, conversational writing. I don't use email too often to send anything I'd consider formal, defined here as writing to someone I don't know too well, and where the situation calls for the writing to be as perfect in terms syntax, grammar, argument, spelling, punctuation, and voice. I'm usually writing to people I know about ongoing discussions and ideas we're pursuing also in office meetings, by phone, at academic conferences, and other places and means for oral exchanges.
  • Thus most of my email writing is a continuation of my oral intellectual and personal life. My one lame joke about my homonym errors is that I might use the wrong word when I write, but I never it get wrong when I speak. Most of what I write is written as though I were speaking.
  • Still, I know I'm going to make mistakes, so why don't I use a spell checker to at least slow down the writing. In Microsoft Office, which I use at work, the spell checker comes with a grammar checker, and while it won't catch homonyms, it will often isolate a sentence where there is a homonym error, and I'll see that error because the sentence is isolated. So why not simply use that more? It's not laziness. It's impatience. I write and want to send; I don't have the patience to wait for the spell/grammar checking. Dumb because it takes a few minutes, but there you have it. Maybe it is a kind of laziness, but it manifests itself in impatience.
So what does all this have to do with teaching writing? Homonym errors are, I suspect for a lot of writers, caused not by lack of knowing which word to use (though students frequently get confused with with it's/its because of the rule that says to form a possessive with an apostrope before the 's.' And who's/whose and effect/affect types of errors are less a matter of sound often than guessing at which is write. But aside from that, most native speakers will know when they've got their for they're or vice-versa.

What is important is getting things right (I almost wrote 'write') when it matters, when the errors will undermine one's standing and argument.

Here are some tips for using the computer to help correct homonyms.
  1. Writers should keep of their homonym errors, and note which ones they tend to make. The chart above can be a useful reference for helping writers to do that.
  2. Writers can use the Search function to find the words they tend to get wrong. Find them, refer to the chart, and look at the sentence to see what the word is doing. Should it be who's or whose? Here or hear?
  3. Use the Search/Replace function to separate contractions. So change, for example, "it's" to "it is." Do this by putting a space before and after "it's" in the search box. This way you won't inadvertantly convert a word such as "sprit's" to "sprit is." If a sentence that read "The fox chased it's tail" becomes "The fox chased it is tail," the writer will know to replace it's with its. This works with who's and they're.
As the steps suggest, the technology implied is a word processor, not an email program. Most email programs that I know of don't offer search and replace within the editing window. But that's part of the argument. For writing that needs to be done just right, that needs to correct, whether it will be an email message, a blog post, or a printed letter, or a final draft essay or a cover letter, use the word processor and the tools it provides to help you find errors.

And print. By search for your homonym hangups, and then changing the words from plain text to a bold font or a different font, and then printing, you'll have a visual aid when proofing your own hard copy.

In other words, you'd be using the eyes of the PC to help you see the error. And that's what homonyms are really about: hearing when you need to be seeing.