Beware of Homophones

I blame Bill Gates – doesn’t everyone?

Writing good English is hard enough without the false reassurance provided by his spell checker that’s supposed to (yes, you guessed it) check your spelling – but doesn’t. Or, rather, it does but it often gets it wrong.

I’ll rant on about homonyms in another post (I bet you can’t wait), but for now let’s confine ourselves to homophones – those words that sound the same but have different spellings. For the technically minded (everyone else skip to the next paragraph), ‘homos’ is the Greek word for ‘same’ and ‘phone’ is derived from the Greek ‘onoma’ meaning ‘sound’.

Common examples of homophones

For an example look at there, their, and they’re. Three words that sound the same but mean something quite different. In every case two of them will be wrong, but the spell checker will allow them all because they’re correctly spelt English words.

So if you want to appear illiterate, just trust your proof-reading to Microsoft Word – or any of its equivalents. Believe it or not, it is telling me I should have written ‘you’re proof-reading’ in that last sentence. The spelling is fine but it thinks I’ve made a grammatical error. Mad!

Feeling possessive?

Then what about its and it’s? Most people have to stop and think about this one. Not me, of course, and probably not you, but you know what I mean. The confusion arises because we are used to inserting an apostrophe to denote possession. Like the cat’s whiskers, the dog’s dinner, and so on. So why not the cat twitched it’s whiskers? Those whiskers do after all belong to the cat.

The first rule of English is that there are no rules. Or, where there are, they are inconsistent. So it’s – with an apostrophe – only ever means it is or it has. Never possession. Let’s hope that’s sorted out our cat and its whiskers.

Another famous group of homophones is to, too and two. Whilst two is generally well understood, the other two will often be seen tripping up the unwary. If there are any rules I can’t recall what they are.

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Well Paid Work for Writers – the murky details

Have you ever seen those websites – “Well-Paid Work for Freelance Writers”?

I spent a couple of hours this week looking at a few, in case there was any work that appealed to me.

After all, it’s good to find new clients: you never know when you’ll need them.

But what a revelation!

There were loads – and I do mean HUNDREDS – of advertisements for article writers, content writers, copywriters, ghost writers and so on.

Well-paid? You must be joking!

A typical ad was offering “well-paid work” for someone who could write 20 unique, original articles a day of 500 words each, in correct, error-free, plagiarism-free English.

For non-mathematicians that’s 10,000 words a day.

Now, I can write fairly quickly if I’m familiar with the subject area, but for fresh, totally unique content written from scratch in first-class English, I would take 3 days to do 10,000 words. And I would charge £800 ($1,200) – there or thereabouts.

You might not believe this

The advertiser was offering $20 (£13) and more than 15 prospective writers applied. That’s $20 for 20 articles, by the way, not $20 each!

Another employer requested an “Expert Marketer with outstanding copywriting skills.”

One submission read ” i am expert typist but i am new at this n i really need this job to complete my higher education.. i promise to do the best and stand at the level of your demand”.

Now, I’m not criticising his command of the English language – I don’t speak a word of Urdu – but that’s why I would never waste my time applying for a job which requested first-class Urdu writing. I couldn’t do it.

Highly misleading feedback

The sites have feedback systems so that employers can comment on individual freelancers’ skills. There were plenty with submissions far worse than our friend from Pakistan. Some had won the job and been praised for their excellent English writing skills!

What worries me is this. If an employer who writes very little English hires an ‘expert’ English writer because they can’t do the job themselves, and goes for the $7 a day writer because they’re cheap, the employer may well accept whatever they get because they don’t know any better.

The moral here is:

I only ever submit an offer if the advertiser writes excellent English himself. That way I know he will appreciate the high quality work he receives from me.


The Pedants’ Revolt

I mourn the demise of the Queen’s English Society. Its leaders jacked it in earlier this week (June 2012) in the face of universal apathy. Their crusade to stem the deterioration in our use of language is finally over after 40 years.

Their heart was surely in the right place, though their motives were often mocked. Their greatest challenge, I believe, was to persuade people that good English mattered. And, seemingly, they failed. Those who supported them didn’t need persuading; the rest had never heard of them (probably never would), and didn’t care anyway.

The QES’s mistake was, perhaps, a refusal (or at least a disinclination) to accept that language changes. Few of us can read Beowulf in its original Old English, though that was the language we all spoke at the time it was written. Even Charles Dickens, less than 200 years ago, wrote in a style that we might nowadays find rather wooden.

Then there was the anti-Queen’s English society. Their agenda seemed to be little more than to deride the QES and everything it said and did.

But both societies were dreadful language snobs. They came across as a bunch of reactionary, elitist pedants; academics wishing to stand in the way of progress. Their writing seemed to contain the longest, most obscure words imaginable, rather like newly qualified graduates trying to impress their managers and clients. At least the QES and anti-QES, unlike many marketing graduates, used the words correctly. But they totally missed the point, which is that …

Language is all about communication – getting your message across as clearly as possible.

That’s it.

If the writer’s style is elegant then that’s a welcome bonus, but clarity is the goal.

Pedants might deplore the odd grammatical mistakes I make, but ‘good’ is often not the same as ‘correct’. My business is communication, and if my readers understand exactly what I’m trying to say then I’ve succeeded.

Despite what my domain name ( might suggest, I have no connection with the Queen’s English Society, though we do share a passion for the English language. But that’s also where we differ. The Society aims for correct English, both written and spoken, whereas I concern myself with well-written English only. And, yes, there is a difference.

Correct English can sometimes be a barrier to communication. I frequently end a sentence with a preposition; not because I’m ignorant or perverse but simply because it makes the sentence flow more easily.

Do you remember Winston Churchill’s famous comment on this subject?

“That is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Ok, he was only joking (perhaps a little heavy-handedly), but I would happily write

“That’s a curious word to end a sentence with.”

Strictly speaking it should be

“That’s a curious word with which to end a sentence.”

 But I prefer my version. It flows more easily, sounds less contrived, and is unambiguous.

Clients of Queen’s English can rest safe in the knowledge that their work will always be handled carefully and responsibly.

Whether we are proof-reading your work, editing and amending where necessary, or writing original copy for your brochures, articles or websites, we will guarantee that your readers will understand exactly what you are aiming to say.