Homophones? Really?

I wear t-shirts all the time, and one of my favorites displays this message:

There. Their. They’re not the same.

When I’m wearing that t-shirt, I’m a walking billboard about an important piece of usage advice: Always go back and check when you write the word there. Or their. Or they’re. (I’ve made plenty of slip-ups myself with these words.)

It’s a concise reminder for writers, and I always enjoy wearing that shirt.

But many English teachers (sigh) don’t want to take the simple-and-direct route to better writing, as an article in today’s Salt Lake Tribune demonstrates.

It’s a ridiculous story. A social-media specialist for the Nomen Global Language Center was fired for posting a blog about homophones (sound-alike words like there, their, they’re). Tim Torkildson, who posted the blog, said that his boss was upset because homophone sounds like homophobia.

Good grief. Homo means “same” in Greek. It shows up in familiar words like homogeneous and homogenize. Phone means “sound” (telephone, phonograph).

Clarke Woodger, who did the firing, should be ashamed of himself.

But I’m also angry at Torkildson. I have (ahem!) a Ph.D. in English, along with 40 years of experience teaching in English. I’ve published two books with a university press. I’m an editor for a scholarly journal.

And I’ve never used the word homophone in my life. (Well, actually I did – I wrote an indignant post about the Salt Lake Tribune article for Facebook this morning.)

There is no need to use homophone – or any of the other jargon so beloved by English teachers. “Easily confused words” does the job very nicely. Or “sound-alikes.”

What infuriates me is that all this unnecessary complexity scares off people who would like to learn more about writing. They get the unfortunate impression that a huge body of technical knowledge must be mastered before they can get to the good stuff – strategies for better writing.

You, reading this post, please believe me: You don’t need a Ph.D. in grammar to be a good writer (just as you don’t have to know how to dismantle a car in order to drive safely). Focus your energies on finding something to say, developing strategies for engaging your readers, and learning standard English usage.

Here’s a good way to start: Take another look at the message on my t-shirt.



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