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issue 44

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Training Bulletin Issue 44

Good King Wence’s Car Backed Out
On the Feet of Heathens…

Welcome to Plain Words’ final training bulletin for 2010. It’s become a tradition (that is, we’ve done it twice now) for the Christmas bulletin to be less than totally serious, so in that vein we’re going to look at English as she is mis-spoke.

One of the joys of English is the way in which people get words wrong. When children do it we think it’s cute. A child’s letter to Santa talked about the remainders who pull his sleigh. Another child wrote that at the end of the Nativity play they all sang ‘Away in a manager’.

But when we do this in business, it’s an embarrassing howler. Classics include leaving the letter ‘l’ out of the word ‘public’, or writing ‘impotent’ instead of ‘important’. It isn’t just overworked business writers who do this sort of thing: substitutions that arise due to mis-heard pronunciation are increasingly creeping into the written language.

Mighty oaks from little eggcorns grow

The fun in this sort of misuse is that often the substitution makes a curious kind of sense. An egg grows into a chicken, corn is a seed, as is an acorn… you can sort of see a perverted logic if you squint a bit. ‘A hard road to hoe’ is actually just as meaningful as ‘a hard row to hoe’ if you intend to say that the way ahead is difficult. The problem is that we do hoe rows (of seeds in a garden) but we don’t generally hoe roads.

‘Collaborating evidence’ is another example of a misuse that makes sense – a bit. It is sometimes used when the writer or speaker means to say ‘corroborative or corroborating evidence’. This means additional evidence to support a contention for which there is already some evidence. As ‘collaborate’ means ‘to work together’ you can see how the misuse came about. Many people have started saying ‘for all intensive purposes’ instead of ‘for all intents and purposes.’ This was originally a legal term meaning something like ‘for all practical situations or senses’ and it has become a bit of a meaningless cliché, so ‘for all intensive purposes’ sounds just as valid.

These show how good our brains are at finding and putting together meaning. We tend naturally towards seeing patterns and meaning in things, sometimes even when they are completely random.

But sometimes the misuse is more to do with the way a word sounds, rather than a sort of alternative meaning. People sometimes write ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in expressions like ‘would have’, ‘should have’ and ‘could have’.

Cute for kids

When children do this kind of thing, it’s funny:

Cute for kids but not so for grown-ups

When a child writes ‘Countries with sea around them are islands and ones without sea are incontinents,’ it makes readers go ‘Aww, how sweet.’

But you won’t be smiling if your staff offer to make curtsey calls to customers about products or services that pacifically interest them. (It should of course be courtesy and specifically.)

How can you be sure?

The trouble is that there’s no easy way to get this sort of thing right if you don’t realise that you have the wrong usage in the first place. Certainly, you can’t rely on spell checkers and grammar checkers.

Earlier this year, a press story about marshal law being declared did not get the kind of attention the publisher might have wanted. Interestingly, though, Microsoft Word thinks that’s correct! (martial law)

Here are some tips to help you get it right:

Happy Christmas from all at Plain Words; see you next year!

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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