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Pivot

Homophones Can Hurt Us!

You take your seat in the plane. You pull down the tray table – and it’s grubby. Then you notice leftover wrappers in the seat pocket in front of you. That triggers an internal conversation that goes something like this: “These guys don’t maintain their cabin; therefore, they don’t maintain their aircraft. We’re going to crash…”

Of course, it’s not logical but it makes perfect sense to most people.


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This Pivot: The words we send out to our parents and caregivers could be saying more about us than we may wish.

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You take your seat in the plane.

You pull down the tray table, and it’s grubby. Then you notice leftover wrappers in the seat pocket in front of you. That triggers an internal conversation that goes something like this: “These guys don’t maintain their cabin; therefore, they don’t maintain their aircraft. We’re going to crash…”

Of course, it’s not logical, but it makes perfect sense to most people.

We don’t always draw sensible, rational conclusions. It’s part of being human.

Good Writing Matters

Now, consider what happens when families receive our newsletters or our reports on their children’s learning and they see spelling or grammatical errors. We’re inviting them to follow a similar illogical path to the one we got drawn down in our aeroplane seat, except their path will align our staff’s ability to teach with their ability in written English.

Poor spelling = poor grammar = poor teacher.

Of course, not all parents are going to notice. The odd reader will be a grammar buff and will be able to spot our split infinitives and our comma splices, but most won’t.

What many people will notice are:

  • simple spelling mistakes,
  • homophones (more about these later), and
  • basic errors in punctuation and capitalisation.

The Core Elements

Any person writing on behalf of our centre needs to comprehend the fundamentals of English.

This means that our budding authors must be able to properly use the different parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections and articles) and the three points of view (first person, second person and third person). They will also need to compile sentences using the correct word order (e.g. articles before adjectives, adjectives before the nouns they modify), and be able to conjugate verbs properly (I go, I am going, I have gone, I will be going, I went, I will go, I was going, I will have gone, etc.).

A pretty daunting list!

Fortunately, most English speakers will have developed these skills instinctively as they learned the language. In fact, few of us can analyse our grammar theoretically – we just know what works. (For the purposes of this Pivot, we’ll assume that staff without these core English skills will not be creating written material for distribution outside the centre.)

However, even with our instinctive knowledge of English, there are plenty of other mistakes we and our staff can make in committing our thoughts to paper.

Let’s have a look at some of them and see what we can do to catch them.

Spell Check Everything

English is well known for having inconsistencies in the way words are spelt.

  • A lot
  • Definitely
  • All right
  • Schedule
  • Occasion
  • Necessary
  • Truly
  • Judgment
  • Recommend
  • Separate
  • Pronunciation
  • Receive
  • Privilege
  • Maintenance
  • Accommodate
  • Misspell

With modern computers, there’s no excuse for any written material going out with slipups in spelling. Word processors, email programmes, presentation software and even spreadsheets all check spelling nowadays.

All we need to do is notice the errors and make the corrections (if they aren’t automatically done for us). 

It is also more professional to make sure our spell checker is set to the country we are in - so we recognise the wrong ‘recognize’.

Then Check for Homophones

OK, you’re staff weren’t employed because they past English class with flying colours, and your not to worried about spelling your self. You don’t have time too read everything staff right anyway and your sure parents are probably no better. So overall it has know real affect - its no big deal. Just except it and move on. Parent’s realise they would probably have maid the same mistakes themselves and won’t wine about it.

We lost count of the number of homophone errors in that paragraph!

Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings and spellings. Homophone errors do not get picked up by spell checkers and tend to leave a worse impression than simple spelling mistakes (a misspelt word can be just a ‘typo’ and we get the benefit of the doubt, but a homophone error yells at readers that we don’t know what these words mean).

Some troublesome homophones are:

  • it's/its
  • knew/new
  • know/no
  • lead/led
  • passed/past
  • peace/piece
  • practice/practise
  • principle/principal
  • there/their/they’re
  • to/too/two
  • who’s/hose
  • your/you’re

Homophone errors can only be picked up by someone who knows what they are looking for. Keeping a list of common homophones (see the resources section at the end of this Pivot) can remind us what to look for.

We need to pay special attention to your/you’re, it’s/its, to/too/two, and there/their/they’re.

Don’t Forget About Punctuation and Capitalisation

Misspelt words and homophones make us and our publications look unprofessional. Poor punctuation and capitalisation will not be as critically judged by most of our readers (or in some cases even noticed), but that's not an invitation to ignore them. Punctuation and capitalisation help make the meaning of our sentences clear.

We all know that every sentence must start with a capital, or upper case, letter. A capital letter tells readers this is where a sentence starts. There are no exceptions to this rule.

We also know that every sentence needs a punctuation mark at the end of it – a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark. This tells readers that our sentence has finished. Again, there are no exceptions.

In between these two markers we use punctuation (commas, colons, semicolons, dashes and brackets) and capitalisation to make our sentences easy to read, and our meaning obvious.

Perhaps the most widely misused punctuation mark is the comma. Here are some suggestions on how to use them correctly.

Commas

It’s a common belief that the comma is used to add a pause in a sentence. This is not the case.

  • We use commas to separate three or more items in a list. For example, “I caught a shark, a barracuda, and a leather boot when I went fishing.” (The comma after ‘barracuda’ causes serious controversy. It is often called the Oxford comma and is omitted by many writers as unnecessary, but there are occasions when it is necessary for clarity.)
  • We use a comma after a dependent clause that starts a sentence. For example, “When I went fishing, I caught a shark”. A dependent clause is one that has a subject and a verb, but cannot stand on its own.
  • We use a comma after an introductory adverb. For example, “Finally, I went fishing and caught a shark”.
  • We use a comma when the first word in a sentence is "yes" or "no". For example, “Yes, I caught a shark when I went fishing”.
  • We use a comma between two adjectives that modify the same noun. For example, “I caught a big, grey shark when I went fishing”.
  • We use a comma to offset negation in a sentence. “I caught a shark, not a barracuda, when I went fishing”.
  • We use a comma before any coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) that links two independent clauses. Independent clauses contain both a subject and a verb and can each stand on their own as a sentence. For example, “I went fishing, and I caught a shark”. “I went fishing” and “I caught a shark” are both independent clauses. Remove the ‘I’ (subject) from the second clause and it is no longer independent and would no longer need a comma: “I went fishing and caught a shark.” Joining two independent clauses with a comma is a common mistake called a comma splice. For example, “I went fishing, I caught a shark”.

Capitals

Capitals can change the meaning of a sentence. For example, “I live in the white house” is quite different from, “I live in the White House”.

In English, we capitalise proper nouns – that is, those words that describe a specific thing or entity.

We won’t go too far wrong if we remember to capitalise:

  • the first word in a sentence,
  • the pronoun ‘I’, and
  • any word that is a name that someone gave this object or person (a proper noun).

Colons, Semicolons, Em Dashes and More

There are rules and guidelines around the use of colons, semicolons, the different types of dashes, and parentheses. There are also rules (many of which keep evolving) around grammar and sentence construction, but the deeper we get into the rules surrounding written English the less return we will get for our efforts.

It's great if it’s a hobby, but most people won’t notice anyway.

So, in keeping with our busy manager’s principle of GETGO (good enough to go), what can we put in place to trap most of our errors?

Practical Steps

  • Keep sentences short. Our families will appreciate it, and we won’t have to study all those comma rules.
  • Read the finished documents out loud. Often, mistakes and unclear phrases become more evident when spoken. Read it to someone else.
  • Have someone else proofread all written material. That includes our own.
  • Hire an external proofreader (see places like Upwork or Fiverr).

Food for Thought…

  • Poor grammar and bad spelling reflect badly on our centre (and our profession).
  • Spell checkers are so wide-spread that there is no excuse for spelling mistakes.
  • Homophones are not picked up by spell checkers and arguably leave an even more unprofessional impression.
  • Punctuation and capitalisation make the meanings of our sentences clear.
  • Our role as manager is to set the standard, put in place the systems and checks, and to lead by example.

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The Spelling Chequer (or poet tree without mist takes)

Eye have a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marks four my revue
Miss steaks eye cannot see

Each thyme when I have struct the quays
Eye weight four it two say
If watt eye rote is wrong or rite
It shows me strait a weigh

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore too late
And eye can put the error rite
Eye really fined it grate

I've run this poem threw it
I'm sure your policed to no
It's letter perfect in its weigh
My chequer tolled me sew

- Author Unknown

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