Another personal favorite part of this words-realm has to do with hearing words and writing them down as they sound. One of my many ways of keeping the bills paid (or within reach) involves the scoring of standardized tests, from all over the country and from school-grade levels ranging from third grade well into high school (I try to make a practice of avoiding terms like “9th” through “12th” as grades, referring to high-schoolers; the less treadmill an “education” is, the better). One of the fun parts of those gigs is reading papers with creative spellings, where some kid knows a word (and often even uses it properly), but has never knowingly seen it in print, so it can take one of us “readers” several moments to decipher the intentions from the context.

However, as the saying goes, “. . . when I was no longer a child, I put away childish things. . . .” I believe that when we alleged “adults” are trying to write coherently, it behooves us to pay attention to these matters. We not only look more intelligent to our readers when we do so, we also present an appearance of knowing how to write in our allegedly “native” language! So today’s blog is about those words (well, a few of the more common ones) that get constantly mixed up in modern discourse. The problem is, we often write the way we speak, and seldom stop to check a dictionary to find out if the word we think we’ve heard is the right one, since they sound the same.

Actually that’s a very good place to start this: When a kid writes about the auditory sense, the present tense may get written as “here,” since that word has been presented to the child in basic reading exercises, spelled that way, and it sounds like the word needed; it takes a little training and practice to find that it’s actually spelled “h-e-a-r, HEAR.” Meanwhile, the past tense of “hear” it also likely to come out just as it sounds: “h-e-r-d, HERD!” We know, as fluent English speakers, that the correct spelling is “h-e-a-r-d, HEARD,” yet it probably took us a while to learn the difference as well.

Similar things plague foreign-speaking people trying to decipher English, where “there,” “their” and “they’re” all sound the same, but have totally different meanings (“that place, rather than this one”; “belonging to them”; and the contraction for “they are” respectively). I recently saw a delightful cartoon with a “Peanuts”theme, posted on a bulletin board, in which Snoopy is doing his dance, while Lucy stands by glowering. The caption was something to the effect of, “Soothing words for Grammar Nazis: there, their, they’re . . . .”

Then there’s “too” (meaning “also” or “as well as”); “to” (the opposite of “from”); and “two” (more than one, less than three). Or how about “your” (belonging to you) and “you’re” (contraction for “you are”), which seems to bedevil even good writers once they get on Facebook!

Here are a few more, including some with which you may not be as familiar:

For example, a “h-o-r-d-e, HORDE” is a group of attackers; it can be invading Visigoths, angry citizens with torches, or a mass of insects in some cases. Whereas “h-o-a-r-d, HOARD” is mass of accumulated stuff, as well as the subject of the “Hoarders” TV show about obsessive people with real problems in the world.

A “w-a-i-v-e-r, WAIVER” is an exception to something; you may get a “waiver” from compliance with certain legal restrictions (Note: It’s also a term used in major league baseball, whereby a ballclub-owner may “waive” a player and then hope nobody else grabs him up and signs him; this meaning is far too complicated to go into here. Forget I mentioned it!) Meanwhile, a “w-a-v-e-r, WAVER” is a vacillation in movement, or a hesitation in one’s conviction to do something intended. (I’ve even seen this one used wrong in published books, some of them a century old.)

Another one a lot of people miss: “w-e-a-t-h-e-r, WEATHER” is about meteorology, and winds and rain and clouds and all of that. Meanwhile, “w-h-e-t-h-e-r, WHETHER” is a word used in making choices, “whether or not to do . . . whatever!” A longtime friend and co-writer, Jeffrey Scott Stewart (now relocated from Nashville to Houston, TX), joined me in writing a song a year or two back; the singer’s addressing his lover about the potentials for their further relationship. The title’s not just a cute pun, but also a commentary on how often the two words get mixed up. The chorus-lyric kinda says it all:

Whether we fight / Whether we try to work it out / Whether we give our love a chance to work or give in to our doubts / We could last for now or last forever / Depends on the whether

A copy of the MP3 shoulda been attached (not a finished work, just a worktape; Jeff will be releasing a finished form in the future, as part of one of his album-projects). Unfortunately (or maybe not, since it’s pretty rough sound), WordPress is not letting me attach it properly, so for now, if you want a copy, send me a message and an email address; I’m kinda proud of what we did with this — so’s Jeff, because he still sings it at a lot of his gigs!

There are many more examples of this confusion, of course; I welcome your comments telling me about your own trials in this regard. Maybe I’ll do a compilation of the suggestions, and add a few more of my own, in a future entry on this blog.

However, I’ll close this one with a mea culpa of sorts, for something of which I was guilty, while editing a very fine book a few years back. (I’ll leave the identity of the writer and the work to your speculation.) I’m still not sure how I missed it, and whether it showed up early on in the editing, or was added in the later stages. All I know is, unlike the first that I worked on, his second book actually started with a mainstream publisher behind it, and the editor who took over the final edit pronounced me an idiot, in part due to this:

A reference was made to the process of a person’s evolution from novice to intermediate and higher in the ranks of songwriting. The author compared this to the growth of a warrior or knight, and referred to as as the “rights of passage.” I missed this one in the editing; it clearly should have been “rites of passage,” yet somehow I went right by without noticing the error.

I consider it one of my own “rites of passage” in becoming a better editor since; I hope you’ll see these little hints in this blog as the same sort of encouragement.