English spelling is a nightmare, and spell check does a miserable job of correcting it — because there are so many homophones, words that sound the same but have different meanings and different spellings. It seems as though every time I read something on the Internet, I come across homophone errors, and they are driving me crazy. They’re increasingly leaking into print publications as well; many books seem to have been proofread entirely by computer, which is a disaster.
But does it matter? Shouldn’t we, along with Humpty Dumpty, be able to force a word to mean whatever we want it to? Isn’t it true that we mostly only notice the first and last letters of a word anyway? If our readers can figure out what we are saying from context, do we need to bother about spelling?
Well, I don’t know about you, but it matters to me. I feel that making the effort to remember some distinctions is important for those who work with words. It reflects clarity and distinctness in our thinking, without which everything becomes a big sloppy mess.
I know that spelling is easier for some people than others, due to differences in how our brains work, and fully appreciate that our English orthography sometimes seems to make no sense. But learning new things is good for your brain, and understanding what you are talking about is even better. If I were able to spread awareness and correct usage of at least the four word-groupings below, I and spelling-conscious readers everywhere would rejoice. Will you indulge me?
This one has plagued me since my school days. It’s really very simple:
it’s = it is or it has
Use “it’s” ONLY when you can replace the contraction with “it is” or “it has,” not when you mean that something belongs to “it.” You don’t write “hi’s,” or “he’r,” do you? No! You write “his,” “her,” and “its.” Thank you, everyone!
|This is a palette, not a palate.|
I see these confused more and more, even in printed books. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad, because the writers often seem to be proud of using such a sophisticated word — only it doesn’t mean what they think it does. Please, write these on your arm, put post-it notes on your computer, whatever you need to remember the difference:
palette: a range of paints or colors, as in an artist’s palette
palate: the roof of your mouth; by extension, the sense of taste (a gourmet’s palate)
pallet: a flat structure made of wooden slats; alternatively, a crude mattress
Now come on, can’t you see what nonsense it is to talk about loading some boxes onto the roof of your mouth, or having a meal that is pleasing to your set of paints? It might help to remember that “palate” has “ate” in it.
These words are easy to confuse. Only one little vowel is different! Maybe it would help to remember that you use peek when you are seeing something, looking briefly into it. Not peak — that means the top, the pinnacle of something. The peak of a mountain is shaped like an A.
pouring/poring – pore/pour
There’s no one who is more enthusiastic than I am about poring over a book. That means that you are closely examining it. But please, please don’t say that you are pouring over it. Whatever you are pouring (water? lemonade? Champagne?) you’ll get it wet and probably not be able to enjoy it any more! A mnemonic for this: you pore over tomes of ancient lore.
What do you think? Am I making a big fuss over nothing? Or do you, too, have spelling pet peeves that keep you awake at night?