There, their

For me, language is interesting. It is all about communication and that is what I enjoy doing and it is the cornerstone of what I do professionally. As I have discussed on a previous occasion, I do not really speak any foreign languages [but I have signed up for Italian classes in 2010!], so my focus is on using English as well as possible. It may be assumed that I mean that I should use English correctly, but, in reality, my priority is to use it as an effective communication tool, which is not necessarily the same thing…

Languages are living things. They evolve over time and English is changing very fast. Every year, dictionaries of new words seem to get bigger. I am not resistant to change, except where we are losing something valuable and I will come back to that another day.

I am very fortunate in having many friends and colleagues in other countries. For many of them, English is their second or third language. I am constantly amazed at how well many of them can use English as a communications tool. I am also surprised at what I can learn from them about my own language. I will take as an example my friends from Sweden. Typically their English is superb. Most often their spoken English is near perfect, as that is how they have first come to the language. Frequently their written English is very good, but they seem to be commonly challenged by a particular English phenomenon: homonyms. These are words that are pronounced the same way, but have different meanings and, often, different spellings. Examples include: “there”, “their” and “they’re”; “here” and “hear”; “write” and “right”; “where”, “wear” and “ware”; “to”, “too” and “two”.

These are very hard to deal with. A spell checker is almost no use. Unless it can analyze the grammar, how can it tell which word is correct? Even then, there is room for ambiguity. So this leads me to an interesting, and very controversial, question: does it actually matter? If you have effectively communicated, does this “spelling error” have any significance? It is hard to see that any ambiguity is introduced, as that is not the case in spoken English, where the words do sound exactly the same.

I am not advocating a “free for all”, where all spelling rules are abandoned. I just wonder if a little simplification or relaxation would be beneficial.

While I am on this theme, maybe I should mention apostrophes. What use are they? They are just an anachronism, which numerous people get wrong. How often do you see signs like “Apple’s on sale”? An apostrophe is simply a place-holder for some letters that have been omitted, resulting in a contraction. Just like with homonyms, there is no ambiguity in spoken English, so why does it matter when we write it down? Can we not just have a few new words: “dont”, “cant”, “shant”, and so forth.

That has put the feline among the gallinaceans.

Comments

7 thoughts on “There, their
  • Darren Powell

    That made me think of this old email

    The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has
    been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European
    communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility.
    As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that
    English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a
    five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for
    short). In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c”.
    Sertainly, sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also, the
    hard “c” will be replased with “k.” Not only will this klear up
    konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

    There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the
    troublesome “ph” will be replaced by “f”. This will make words like
    “fotograf” 20 per sent shorter.

    In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be
    expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are
    possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters,
    which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil
    agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the languag is
    disgrasful, and they would go.

    By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing
    “th” by “z” and “W” by “V”. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan
    be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud of kors;
    be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. After zis fifz yer, ve vil
    hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil b no mor trubls or difikultis
    and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil
    finali kum tru.

  • Colin Walls

    Thanks for reminding me of this Darren. Makes me smile.

  • Dan

    Nice post Colin.

    Maybe it’s because I’m the only tech person in my family (parents, siblings all English majors), but I get irritated by things like:

    the 1990’s (should be 1990s)
    Everyone has their own opinion (should be “everyone has his [or his/her if we want to be politically correct] opinion”
    R U going B4 me (OK, now I’m just having fun…)

    But seriously, an engineer who has mastered (or at least who respects) the written word is a rare & valuable find.

    By the way, speaking of non-native English speakers, I find that Asian cultures, and some European cultures (usually the Romance languages – French, Spanish, English) really struggle with English. Other lands, such as Scandanavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and even the UK (OK, I joke) often demonstrate an outstanding proficiency in the language.

    I wonder if it’s due to the educational systems, the roots of the native tongues, or perhaps some combination?

  • Dan

    ACK!!!! Typing too fast. Pot, meet kettle.

    The 3rd Romance language should have been Italian. 🙁

    Bad me!

  • Colin Walls

    Some interesting points Dan.

    The use of an apostrophe after a number or an acronym is a style thing. I am with you – what is the point of them?

    Indefinite pronouns in English are interesting and I’ll blog on this another day. We use “you” or “they” of “him/her”, when we could use “one”. Except that sounds a bit posh. This is not a problem in French [“on”] or German [“man”].

    I think some countries [like Sweden] have an environment where learning English is encouraged. Firstly, who else speaks Swedish? Second, a lot of TV is in English [American] with subtitles instead of dubbing.

  • Carolyn Walker

    You have really touched a nerve with me, Colin. Having taught English to undergraduates, I used to squirm at their appalling spelling and syntax but,though it does matter academically, I try to be much more laid back these days as I feel texting is changing the language quite irrevocably. Besides, having had to mark so many poorly spelt essays, my own ability to spell has been severely compromised!

  • Kirsty

    Language is indeed a living thing that evolves, but I don’t think that laziness is evolution. Your points in this post are about the confusion of using English as a second language and mistakes can, of course, be forgiven; the thing that makes me mad is English born people who are taught English at school and yet make a complete hash of it in even the most simple of sentences. The transient nature of technological communication (email, facebook, texts, etc.) may be used as an excuse for this, but it is still communication by which a person is judged (because it is never entirely what you say, but how you say it) and people should be be aware of that.

    Them’s my tuppence!

Leave a Reply