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Getting to grips with grammar

Posted on: 22 July 2011
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Filed under: Communication, Content, Education, Writing for the web

An open book

A recent article on the BBC News website suggested poor spelling could result in reducing online sales by half.

A website owner interviewed said: “Sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website’s credibility”.

He has a good point but we must not forget that it is not just poor spelling that can let us down.

Grammar and awareness of other factors eg brand names, can have an important effect on how users not only view websites but how these views can spread to other, potential, users.

I received a lovely email from a friend this week. It was taken from the always welcome Buzzfeed.com .

It described eight words that are confused with words that SOUND exactly the same but when spelled incorrectly mean something completely different – Phase/Faze, Rein/Reign etc. You get the idea.

Although it was a chuckle to read it also reminds all of us that taking the time to spell correctly is never wasted time.

Sometimes the words that trip us up most often are the ones that we use the most and have simply forgotten they are being used incorrectly.

Hoover, Tarmac, Jacuzzi, Jet Ski, Vaseline and Kleenex are several examples of words we use to describe specific items but are actually trademarks.

I know ‘asphalt surfacing’ may not sound like the sexiest thing to drive your car on but if it’s not Tarmac,  you can’t use it.

This can also be applied to words you might use to describe what someone or something does.

Some examples I can give happened when I first started as a newspaper journalist.

I used the word ‘motorway’ when I should have used ‘road’ – it wasn’t an M-road.

Using the word ‘accident’ when it should have been ‘collision’ – it was between two vehicles and using ‘accident’ aportions blame to one or more parties.

And the best, and thankfully this wasn’t me, using the word ‘swoop’ to describe a police raid. Cue the news editor telling my colleague that “Birds swoop, people don’t”.

Even in this very office we had a discussion over the use of the word ‘seagull’. Sounds silly I know but a ‘seagull’ doesn’t exist.

A gull, and the many members of its family, does.

And because they are often seen near to the coast the term ‘seagull’ has been coined to describe them even though it isn’t correct.

The use of language is always a touchy subject but we have to remember not to get lazy with our use of it.

Although former US President Andrew Jackson may have had a point when he said: “It is a damn poor mind indeed which can’t think of at least two ways to spell any word”.

And don’t get me started on people who use the word  ‘irregardless‘.

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4 Responses to “Getting to grips with grammar”

  1. Good article, Mark – wasn’t it Jackson whose misspelling of ‘all correct’ led to the creation of ‘OK’?

    Our growing reliance on unreliable online reference sources doesn’t help (and you might guess where this is going…) Recently a column in a well-known magazine for managers consistently misspelt ‘extrovert’. As that was the key word of the article, this was unfortunate. When pressed, the contributor said: ‘That’s how it’s spelt on Wikipedia…’ Oh, dear.

    Anyway – keep up the good work (and spelling).

  2. Neil,
    Oh, I don’t know about the Jackson quote. I still curse myself when I say “hello” and I’m not using the telephone – yes, that’ s my life 🙁
    Grammar will always be tricky and for all the good it achieves, Wikipedia is still a minefield for spelling. I’m sure I’ll slip up in the future – it’s a question of how quickly I get back to my feet.
    Many thanks.

  3. I’m delighted to see that the web team recognises the importance of accurate spelling and grammar for the university’s web presence. I was surprised, therefore, to see this sentence on the new intranet page ‘Changing our online presence’:

    “We are still at the beginning stages of what’s required and there hasn’t been time to contact everyone effected by the changes but we are getting round to it.”

    Not quite a homophone error such as the ones you mention in your post here, but close. Admittedly, this error will not be seen by readers outside the university, and so will not risk putting off prospective students, but it rather undermines your commitment to uniform accuracy. I hope you’ll be able to change it.

  4. Barry,
    Thanks for the comment – they’re always welcome. I hadn’t seen the page you were writing about…but I have now. Consider it amended. Many thanks.

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