Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday 6 September 2010

Euphonious homophones

A few weeks ago, Mrs Rigby took time off from a busy summer to deplore the fate of the humble apostrophe, scattered promiscuously about with no thought for accuracy or grammatical logic.

As the happy smiling faces of parents arrive at primary school gates today, I feel compelled to make a similar point about spelling and vocabulary.

Last weekend, my local paper contained an article on the opening of a nail bar where, it seems, 'the cues stretched as far as the High Street and many people had bought their children'. Readers were also informed that 'Debbie Stark won the grand raffel prize'.

Meanwhile, Saturday's Times, no less, contained a review of the new Dyson cleaner with '18ft retractable power chord' - B flat major, perhaps, revving up for a trucker's gear change.

Now I know we're all vulnerable to the occasional typo, but these examples of mistaken homophones are in another league altogether. Someone - who is being paid to write accurate prose - looked at 'cues' or 'chord' and decided that was the right spelling for the context.

In the early days of word processing, I had an eighth share in a secretary who regarded the spellchecker as infallible. Should she mis-spell a word (and spelling wasn't exactly her strong point), she would obediently accept the first suggestion in the list offered by the computer regardless of whether it made sense.

The merest suggestion that her little tin god might be wrong elicited loud outbursts of indignation; finally most of us took to re-typing our own letters in secret rather than sending out the gibberish she produced.

Alas, she was merely a foretaste of what appears to be happening wholesale in our computer-driven culture and will continue until schools find a way of teaching accurate spelling, a broad vocabulary and the capacity for independent thought.


  1. I've noticed this happening a few times on TV subtitles too. Does no-one do proof-reading any more?

  2. To be fair, the subtitles these days are usually generated from the soundtrack by speech-to-text software, which isn't clever enough to distinguish homophones. I agree that the results are sometimes creasingly funny.

    Having worked in a business where a high public image was a vital part of the marketing drive, I can confirm that no-one gives a rat's ass about proof-reading any more. I worked in a back-office role, but all of the promotional material sent out went across my desk. I was forever emailing marketing with their spelling and grammar errors, clunky phrasing and so on. Generally, I was ignored and regarded as a bit old-fashioned for even noticing, never mind caring about it. So a company that spent millions on website design and flashy advertising in key regions was hapy to let stuph go uot with erors in, like.

    I gave up after a while.


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