I’ve been a professional writer for close to 20 years. The one thing I find in the business world that irritates me more than anything else isn’t poor spelling (spellcheck has fixed that) or grammar (college-educated Americans are pretty competent). It’s capitalization.
American business people have a strong tendency to capitalize anything that sounds important. For them, this primarily means business terms (purchase order, project, testing strategy, etc.). Our education system seems to have failed to clarify the difference between a common noun (car) and a proper noun (Chevy Nova).
Three things make this tricky, I think. One is the way that business people tend to name things with highly descriptive names. The tool that they use to record their time and expenses might be called the Time & Expense Administration tool rather than, say, Athena. Indeed, even if they wanted to name it Athena, they would feel highly obligated to make that an acronym for Administration Tool for Hours and Expenses, North America or some-such.
Another is acronyms in general. It’s very useful to abbreviate all sorts of terms into simple acronyms, whether proper pronounceable acronyms or just initials. But making something into an acronym and using that frequently starts to make it seem like a proper name, and the fact that acronyms are written in capital letters suggests that the spelled-out version should also be capitalized. Some people believe this so firmly that they state it as some sort of half-assed policy.
So the process for approving internal projects gets called “the internal project approval process” enough that it gets abbreviated IPA, and eventually gets delivered as the Internal Project Approval process or Internal Project Approvals, asif that’s really an official name.
It would be fine that really were an official name, but the fact that people still feel free to call say “the Internal/External Project Approvals process” when they want to talk about both sorts of projects together tells you immediately that it’s not a real name. You can’t do that with your children’s names.
The third thing that tempts business people to overcapitalize is self-importance. People want to feel important, and that tempts them to capitalize job titles as if they were government offices. For the reasons stated above, CSR seems like it should be expanded to Customer Service Representative because “that’s what we call them; that’s their official name”, hence Supervising Manager, Vice-President, and Accounts Receivable Associate.
Some people recognize the absurdity of this if you point out that “president” and “queen” and “medical doctor” aren’t capitalized unless they are used as a title with a name. And even then, they are capitalized precisely because they are titles, not just jobs.
But others insist that this is simply “company policy” when it is in fact just company habit.
My advice is not to fight them to hard. There are bigger fish to fry when doing professional business writing. Just assure them you will make the material conform to standard English rules, and leave their most sacred capitalization alone (usually anything that you can pretend is a name, like processes).
Bigger fish: one utility I did work for had a habit of referring to a residence or business they serviced as a “premise” because they thought “premises” was plural. Spellcheck won’t correct that, of course, because “premise” has a legitimate meaning of its own, so it was tricky water to navigate.
Worse, I kind of agree that “premises” should be plural. Damn that Latin.
The Week has offered 7 bogus grammar errors you don’t need to worry about. Many of these are supposedly breaking rules that are themselves only recent inventions of schoolmarms and prescriptivist grammarians.
Finally, a sensible grammar lesson I can agree with… except for “I could care less.” That’s lazy nonsense that makes the idiom meaningless, and we already have too many meaningless idioms like “the whole nine yards” and “hold down the fort”.
And it clashes with the recommendations of a later article by the same author, Ben Yagoda, on 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to. There, he points out the correct form of several idioms like “begs the question”. That’s mostly a good article, atho I can’t agree with the “begs the question” example.
Grammarians like to say that “begs the question” refers to a formal point of debate in which an argument assumes that the question debated is true while purporting to help prove that it is true. (“I know God exists because the Bible says God exists, and the Bible is the word of God.”) However, I’ve literally never heard “begs the question” used in any conversation that wasn’t about why “begs the question” is wrong to use to mean “raises the question.” Instead, any discussion about such an argument always simply calls it “a circular argument.” Moreover “that point begs the question…” is perfectly grammatical English: “the point we’re discussing is simply begging for the following question to be answered.”
One of the interesting changes in English is the use of “alright” to mean “okay” or “good”. The traditional form is “all right” but that’s becoming differentiated to mean only the more literal “correct in its entirety”. If you say “I’m alright” you’re saying that you feel fine, not that everything you do and say is correct. And if you say “Your test answers were all right” you mean that all of them were correct, not that they were pretty cool.
Some object to this on traditional terms, but “alright” has clear traditional siblings formed in the same way and for similar reasons.
- “always” means “in all cases and for all time” and not “in every way”
- “already” means “unexpectedly soon” and not “fully prepared”
- “altogether” means “in entirety” rather than “consolidated”
- “also” means “too” and not “entirely such”
- “although” means “in spite of everything” rather than some nonsensical variant (one might say that “altho” is really no different from “tho”, but they are used slightly differently, which is why the word remains)
“Alright” has been with us for nearly as long as “all right”, and it’s unclear why prescriptivist grammarians dislike it despite its several respectable siblings. (Not that I care much for historical arguments; plenty of antique parts of the language need to be changed.)
A is for certain and aisle and learn
B is for doubt and bomb and subtle
C is for yacht and indict and victuals
D is for handsome and handkerchief and Wednesday
E is have and juggle and are
F is for halfpenny
G is for gnome and foreign and align
H is for honor and white and rhyme
I is for business and friend and pimiento
K is for blackguard and knife
L is for calf and caulk and salmon
M is for mnemonic
N is for hymn and column and autumn
O is for opossum and sophomore and colonel
P is for psychic and receipt and pneumonia
Q is for lacquer and racquet
R is for dossier and (UK, Oz, and Southern US) far
S is for isle and corps and debris
T is for depot and listen and asthma
U is for build and guard and harangue
W is for write and answer and two and who
X is for faux and roux
Y is for prayer and key
Z is for rendezvous
I can’t believe there’s been no mention of the aesthetic aspect of this debate. The fact is, phonetic spellings are ugly, for the most part. ‘Enuf’ is crude and inelegant, ‘enough’ is not. ‘Colour’ and ‘honour’ are more pleasing than their American alternatives.
That’s a comment from user EdmundBurkeLivesOn on a spelling article in The Guardian. I’ve seen this argument before, and it always sort of stuns me with its lack of self-awareness.
What is esthetically pleasing to this person can be neatly summed up with the phrase “I prefer what I’m familiar with.” He’s a Briton, so he likes British spelling. He thinks that his opinions are based on objective esthetics. But if he thinks that older, quirkier, more typically British spellings are classier, would he want to change words that don’t display those quirks?
I’m sure he would balk at the idea of changing, say, stuff to stough and dandruff to dandrough to class them up a bit. Or perhaps add a U to author and motor because surely authour (once legit) and motour are more pleasing to his keen artistic eye.
He doesn’t mention it, but another part of American spellings that differ from the spellings of his British childhood are the “-er/-re” endings. We have to imagine that EdmundBurkeLivesOn should approve of spelling father, mother, sister, brother as fathre, mothre, sistre, brothre and cadaver, cover, waiver as cadavre, covre, waivre, in the pleasing British style. Would he boldly move on to out-British British English by changing major, minor, beggar, hangar to majro, minro, beggra, hangra? The heart trembles at the beauty….
The absurdity of this underscores a point I’ve made before: we are automatically biased in favor of spellings (and many other things) that we are familiar with and tend to reject both new and archaic versions, as if we live in a magical time when our spellings (and many other things) just happen to be perfect.
English is a pretty simple language when it comes to grammar. It’s spelling, pronunciation, and idioms that are most challenging. Yet there are aspects of English that are tricky enough that native speakers stumble over them and, indeed, are causing widespread change.
Probably the most obvious are pronouns. English pronouns are a hodgepodge of its root languages, with some simplification having happened already in the past 400 years. Despite Shakespeare and the King James Bible, thee, thou, thy, thine, and ye are no longer in daily use. Indeed, even the KJV was using them as archaic forms re-purposed as high-falutin’ speech. (For example: thee was previously considered the intimate form of address, whereas the Bible makes it seem respectful.)
We have a chance to simplify this further with I and me. It’s not only very common for poorly educated people to say “Me and Annie want to go to the movies” instead of “Annie and I want to go to the movies” but highly educated people will also often incorrectly say “They gave an award to her and I” rather than “They gave an award to her and me”. After all, no one would say “They gave an award to I”.
But why not?
We have already nearly given up on whom, the object equivalent of who. Twitter’s interface boldly suggests a list of “Who to Follow”. We could actually eliminate me from the language entirely and hardly miss it. It already happened with you: we use you as both subject and object (as well as the more confusing singular and plural), and it does double duty without a second thought.
- Annie and I want to go to the movies.
- They gave an award to her and I.
- They gave an award to I.
- Why are you asking I?
These sound ungrammatical now, of course, but we would get used to them quickly. And me doesn’t really add any information. Neither does them, for that matter, or us. We could use they and we for both subject and object across the board.
- We want to go to the movies with they.
- They gave an award to we.
- Why are they asking we?
It seems much less likely that we would modify the possessive case to match.
- He took Is book. It’s Is, not his.
- Wes class went to the movies together. Wes teacher said we behaved very well.
This isn’t a proposal, of course, just an observation of the direction English could go in the next 400 years.
One of the sillier arguments against a more phonemic spelling system is that it turns many words that today sound the same (homophones) but are spelled differently (heterographs) into homographs, or words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings. When people encounter new homographs in examples of reformed spelling, they often balk, pausing in a moment of confusion when they try to decipher the meaning.
Their problem is that the spelling currently (and therefore in their heads) has a particular meaning and that that’s not the one that is meant by the respelled version. For example:
- I wundered if anywun new ware I cud fiynd tu new dresses tu ware.
A reader encountering this sort of thing for the first time could very well stumble on “new” for knew and “ware” for where and wear and perhaps “tu” for two and to. The problem with claiming that this is really a problem is that English is full of homographs already. But we don’t notice them because that spelling currently (and therefore in our heads) already encompasses both (or all) the different meanings. So really it’s just another example of something the reader needs to get used to.
For example, the boot in “boot the computer” and “boot the football” are very different. One means “start” and the other means “kick”. But since boot already encompasses those two different meanings in our heads, we don’t really even notice that they are two different words. In fact, some people might even try to claim that they are the same word, and that rebooting a computer is metaphorically giving it a kick. (It actually comes from the concept of a simple initial computer program acting as a bootstrap to help put a boot on, the boot being a metaphor for the main program to be loaded; it’s a shortening of the original 1950s’ term bootstrapping.)
This “same word” idea becomes ridiculous if you apply it to “bear fruit” and “bear den” and other such words that have no relation in meaning (these aren’t even the same part of speech). A casual look thru a dictionary will find that most words have multiple meanings, many of which aren’t even remotely related by strained metaphors. It simply doesn’t occur to us that “1 word with 2 meanings” is basically the same as “2 words with 1 spelling” until we start respelling words and stumbling over new homographs.
Even in cases where the word origins or meanings are closely related, like “bow and arrow” and “hair bow“, the two things are often so different that we don’t register the similarity (both come from a word meaning “to bend around”). It wouldn’t seem odd at all if those two bows had two completely different names. They don’t particularly seem related in any way that would make us think they should have the same name. Another example is “light in weight” and “light in color”, two very different concepts that could easily confuse a reader in the phrase “she’s wearing a light coat”. In such cases, a listener might ask for clarity, but this is true in any case of words with multiple meanings. (“Wait. Like a fishing reel or a film reel?” “You mean a physical tool like a hammer or some sort of software tool?”)
Worse is when people claim that different spellings for the same sounds helps us because it clarifies the meaning on the page. A moment’s thought will tell you that you don’t have a hard time differentiating those words when they are used in speech despite the fact that they sound the same, so why could it be so important to have them differentiated in their spellings? It’s simply a defense of habit. You don’t become confused when someone uses two, to, and too in their speech because the context easily separates them. So obviously you would quickly get used to seeing them all spelled “tu” or some such. Likewise air/heir, fare/fair, close/clothes, boos/booze, sink/sync, etc. Do the different spellings help the reader by providing clarity? Yes, but often not as much as they hurt the speller in learning the words.
Indeed, confusion can be purposeful and humorous, as with puns, which don’t work on the page when their spellings differ, or it can be mitigated by additional descriptors, or you can simply get used to the fact that these new spellings are the same, just like many, many other cases you don’t even notice. In any case, new homographs are a poor excuse for opposing spelling reform.
What are detrimental to reading comprehension are heteronyms: words that look the same (and so are homographs) but which are pronounced differently. How often are we tripped up in reading bow, lead, read, bass, and such, which can be pronounced different ways depending on the meaning?
And worse still are homophones that are heterographs. How often do we see people tripped up in writing there/their/they’re, to/too/two, and such because they sound the same but look different? Far from ruining the language with new homographs, a decent spelling reform would fix many problems with these much more problematic words.