With many of us staying at home, using mobile phones and laptops to keep in touch several times a day, we have probably just set a new record for written communication.
The past two weeks will have seen more pieces of writing exchanged than any other 14-day period in human history. But how much of it will have been in proper sentences? Or accurately punctuated?
Sadly, many people in this digital era don’t pay much attention to the quality of their English. Data, opinions, statistics, analysis, news, and infotainment hurtles towards them on the information superhighway. But it just crashes into them. Their general knowledge is generally bad, their grasp of history loose, they’re lost when it comes to geography, and common sense is uncommon.
Worst of all, they spell an awful lot of it incorrectly. This week I read an article that was supposed to be stirring and uplifting, but urged us to “baton down the hatches and stay safe”. That’s batten, not baton. I was stirred, but not uplifted.
Another email I received was from someone who didn’t know there’s a difference between “the virus sewn around the world” and “the virus sown around the world”. Maybe it’s all a stitch-up?
Sown and sewn are homophones, words pronounced the same but with different spellings. They can be tricky. But there is really no excuse for writing sewn when you mean sown. Or vocal chords when you mean vocal cords, another common error. Getting these wrong merely displays a lack of spelling ability.
Homographs are more difficult still. These are words which are spelled the same but have different meanings. You can have a bandage wound round a wound, or an insurance policy invalid for an invalid.
Worst of all are polysemes, which have roughly the same root meaning but are used slightly differently. Wood, for instance, is what my desk is made of but also an area of ground covered by trees. Or you could bank on the fiscal prudence of your bank.
You are reading a polyseme. Newspaper can mean the actual paper with news printed on it, or the institution that produces it. I write for a newspaper, but it isn’t a piece of paper I write for.
Of course, if you’ve taken advantage of The Courier’s free digital subscription offer (and why wouldn’t you?) then you are reading a paper that isn’t actually made of paper.
Word of the week
To shiver or shudder with fear (as in “gruesome”). EG: “The thought of getting the virus makes me grue.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org