Category Archives: General

Music makes the word go round


It’s easy to lapse into a sing-song way of talking to babies. Something along the lines of “I love you so much, oh yes I do, oh yes I do do do!”

It’s entertaining and elicitsIMG_1061 a smile or giggle – even some babble, in response. But the baby isn’t responding to what the mother is saying, so much as how she’s saying it.

University of Toronto Psychology professor Sandra Trehub has been looking into this, and presented at a symposium in May. It was the first one ever on music and language held by the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music in Montreal.

Trehub says babies are captivated by maternal speaking, but especially, by singing.

She says the prevailing belief is that language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly, and that music requires more effort. But she stresses that infants are naturally musical. They imitate their parents’ pitch as young as three months.

“So the mother might say ‘hi’ or ‘what are you doing’ and the child might go ‘hu-uh’,” says Trehub. “And later in the first year when infants engage in meaningless babble – baba, gaga – those who have listened to it carefully and measured it carefully, can recognize what language that child comes from. It has some of the rhythms and some of the intonation patterns.”

So if an infant is naturally musical, having a caregiver sing to them can boost their language development. Trehub says even though babies don’t understand the words, mothers can help them buy into language, through song.

“They sell infants on that form – the notion that that’s really interesting to listen to,” says Trehub. “And you know, months down the road, infants buy the content because they’ve already been captivated by the form.” Now, that’s some selling strategy.

ImageSinging teaches infants about how language is constructed. The words are presented slowly and rhythmically, so it’s easy to catch on. Some songs are highly predictable so babies find it very comfortable, and eventually join in.

Trehub says regular singing can help infants absorb words and sounds before they speak. So that when they actually start talking, they have a leg up.

To be clear, it’s live songs, sung to infants because it promotes reciprocal communication. Not listening to a disconnected recording like, say Baby Mozart (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

Besides helping them develop language skills, song can actually help calm babies.

A recent study Trehub co-authored found a baby listened to a voice for four minutes before being distracted. But could listen to a singing voice for NINE minutes. It’s not known exactly why, but it could be due to vocal timbre, which creates pleasing sounds for baby.

Other research backs the benefits of singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to infants before they can speak, adding to a growing body of research singing the praises of song.

So if you like to sing, you might want to sing more to your baby. If not, well, just stick to talking. It’s also proving to give your child that linguistic leg up.

Have a listen!

The wisdom of Latin learning


Introduction to the Latin Tongue

March 11, 2013

For a dead language, Latin has taken on a life of its own. Pope Benedict boosted its profile when he announced he was retiring, and the Vatican is all abuzz with it as well. The Rome revival adds to the language’s recent popularity in TV, film and books like Harry Potter. But Latin doesn’t just open access to other worlds, it can also help us improve our English.

Have a listen here

Sports metaphors can be a long shot


February 4, 2013

We have to be faster, higher, and stronger! The media really jumped the gun on that story. Relax…Life is a marathon not a sprint.

Those are just a few Olympic terms we use to compare life to a high-level competition. And with one year to go to the Sochi Winter Games, we’ll likely be hearing more Olympic metaphors.

Metaphors help us understand the world by equating one concept with another. And whether you know it or not, we use them all the time. War is a game. A business is a family. Marriage is an institution; or, marriage is a partnership.

We use sports metaphors in particular.

Hail Mary pass

Hail Mary pass

We can use a football field to refer to making a desperate move like a Hail Mary pass or to run interference. A baseball field can represent struggle: we’re in the bottom of the ninth, or you need to step up to the plate.

Some Canadians stick with the ol’ hockey metaphor. Veteran communications specialist Barry McLoughlin gives an example:

“Look we’re ragging the puck on that issue right now, okay? You know we’re not going to release or announce this just yet, we’re ragging the puck. That’s a classic one that’s used extensively.”

McLoughlin says sports metaphors can be a great communication tool: “Whether you’re involved personally in sports, whether your kids are in soccer or in hockey, or whether your spouse is watching it on television, it becomes the language that everybody can share in”.

But McLoughlin adds that if you’re in the political or business world, using too many sports metaphors can be risky. “Because after awhile, it’s almost as if you’re taking the issue too lightly. Maybe you’re not getting the emotions and feelings behind it,” he says.

“This would be a concern in terms of your own sincerity and credibility.”

Indeed, the metaphors we use can tell us something about how we think. And what we think can determine how we act, and how we relate to other people.

Slap shot

Slap shot

So, what if you don’t see the world in terms of sticks and pucks?

McLaughlin says with more women in business and politics, sports metaphors could be on the way out: “I think we’re on a decline in the usage. It’s a heavy kind of legacy of a macho era, and it’s not seen as overly sophisticated.”

While some women do of course use sports metaphors, others prefer comparisons to home or family. For instance, describing government priorities in terms of balancing the household chequebook.

It’s less competitive – more cooperative.

New immigrants, too, are bringing different ways of seeing the world, and a passion for different sports. Soccer is Canada’s fastest growing sport, and there’s no shortage of people who see life as a soccer field where you don’t want to be shown the red card.

While the sports metaphors we use may be changing, it’s safe to say they’ll be around for as long as we play games.

May you ALL own the podium.

Listen to the audio here:

Digital Dictionaries


January 7, 2013

You’re reading the morning news and suddenly you’re confronted with a word you don’t know. Perfunctory, let’s say. Rather than ignore it, or maybe look it up in a print dictionary, you just call the word up online.

Digital dictionaries are becoming increasingly popular; the Modern Languages Association even devoted a session to them at its recent annual convention.

So let’s explore what’s gained and lost in the shift from offline to online.

Ubiquitous, schadenfreude, bourgeois are some of the most sought after pronunciations in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Hearing the word is a definite plus when you’re looking it up.

Peter Sokolwski agrees. He’s Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, and presented at the convention. “We know that is something people really highly value,” he says.

“Having an audio pronunciation that’s not some kind of a synthesized computer voice but a real human voice, especially from people who are learning English as a second language. And we know maybe a billion people are learning English who don’t speak it at home.”

Other websites, including, offer audio pronunciations as well. Executive producer Ben Zimmer, who also presented at the convention, says the website used several opera singers to make the 140,000 sound files because they’re adept at interpreting the International Phonetic Alphabet. Consider it a grammatical serenade.

Online dictionaries also allow us to tap into the zeitgeist. does that by measuring which words are looked up when. Sokolwski says we go online in times of crisis.

After 9/11, some of the dictionary’s most popular terms were rubble, terrorism and surreal. And when Michael Jackson died, we scrambled to look up stricken, resuscitate, icon and emaciated.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Last year,’s most looked-up words were socialism and capitalism, often together — people grappling with politics and the economy.

Online dictionaries can measure the words we don’t get (insidious or conundrum); the ones we can’t spell (there, their and they’re), and the ones we trip over (affect versus effect).

“People are using the dictionary more because it’s so much more accessible,” says Sokolwski. “That way they can confirm anytime, anywhere.”

And we’re seeing words added faster in online dictionaries: within several years, not decades. Consider some of the 2012 additions to Oxford (which includes the Canadian Oxford): urbanscape, bling (and blinging) and superbad.

On many sites, users can interact by adding their own word suggestions, and sites such as compile data from many sources, including Twitter and Flickr.

Look up polythene and you’ll also get its Scrabble score (17), as well as a handy Beatles song title (“Polythene Pam”).

And then there’s Google. If you simply enter “define” and your word of choice, voila! Multiple definitions from multiple sources within seconds.

But, perhaps it’s all a little too much information. Which is why some digital dictionaries are offering simplified definitions, especially for ESLers.



In the online world, you also lose the serendipity of discovering other words besides the one you looked up.

While Ben Zimmer acknowledges that, he says we’ll simply develop different orientations to text as we go online. He’s also the head of Visual, which he says is modelled on how our brain works, and uses word maps.

Indeed, with print dictionaries in decline, the future is digital.

MacMillan Dictionaries just announced it will only be online, Encyclopedia Brittanica too, and the Oxford English Dictionary is considering. It’s a big switch. It means having to create a whole new business model, depending more on advertisers, and users who are willing to pay extra for perks.

Nonetheless, Peter Sokolwski is optimistic: “It is the age of also. In other words, we have so many choices. We have the dictionary as a book, we also have that same content online or in an app in your phone.

And as long as we make that content available in every possible way so that you can find it quickly and consistently, then we all win.”

Publishers, advertisers, and especially us, the users. More than ever, we can play with language and learn new words, like quixotic (which, by the way, has a Scrabble score of 26).


A Prepositional Tale


December 16, 2012

Once upon a time, we used the preposition “upon”. Alas, its days are numbered.

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales this month, which is inspiration enough to look at the changing nature of prepositions.

Those little words have an important function, usually locating us in time and space. As the way we relate to time and space changes, we reduce our use of words like upon, add others, and modify meanings. Because prepositions morph so much, they can seem confusing.

Robert Lane Greene, who writes The Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language, says it comes down to how these words evolved.

“For example, behind has a hint of the old word “hind quarter” – the hind – so it was something near your rear end, essentially,” says Greene. “So they start very literal [and] they become pretty concrete but still spatially literal. Like behind is a location in space, and then you can say I’m behind in my work and that’s a more abstract meaning.”

So they can be grounded in the physical or the abstract.

But often, the prepositions we use don’t make the most sense. We say in debt, when under debt might be more appropriate. We open up a store in the morning, and close it up at night. An alarm goes off by going on. Even varieties of English differ; we say on the weekend where Britons say at.

“Whether a single preposition is correct isn’t established by a logic; it’s usually just by convention,” says Greene. “We dream about something in English. You say soñar con in Spanish: to dream with something. The speech community itself gets to establish what random preposition out of the bag might go with certain phrases or certain expressions.”

Since preposition use isn’t obvious or even logical, it can be challenging when we have a new spatial relationship. Like moving from physical, to digital.

“Do you say on or in a website?” Greene asks. “For example, Slate calls itself a magazine; it’s a news and commentary website. But people will tend to say on Slate, or in Slate. In some cases, the correct preposition takes a while to shake out [but] usually it will. People say on Twitter, not in Twitter.”

And with research studies proliferating in the news, the media have taken to saying a study out of such and such university, versus by particular researchers.

Over the past half century, we’ve actually added a number of new prepositions, according to Brett Reynolds, an English professor at Humber College. One of them is post, as in: How is the water, post Walkerton? I used it myself the other day: Post vacation, I always feel a little blue (but then I quickly bounce back!).


 So, if we’re continually adopting new ways to use prepositions, why do we cling to the old idea that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition?

We avoid it. Or we do it, but quickly cover up. Or we try to avoid it, and do it anyway.

The idea of preposition “stranding” dates back to the 1600s to poet and essayist John Dryden. He liked to compose his writing in Latin then translate into English – more sophisticated, apparently. And in Latin, a preposition must precede its object. The idea was condoned in an influential grammar book in the 1700s, and stays with us today.

“One linguist I know calls it a zombie rule,” says Greene. “It’s dead and everyone knows it’s dead and yet it keeps on coming at you.”

But in fact, it’s often more natural to end with a preposition. As in: She likes being fussed over; He relishes the project he’s taking on; Who are you talking to?!

If we just moved on from that old-fashioned rule, we would all live happily ever after.

 Listen here:

The Winning Words of Candidates


November 2, 2012

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been posturing and pontificating for what feels like forever; not even superstorm Sandy could slow them much.

Their speeches are wildly applauded (by supporters, at least), closely analyzed and assiduously fact-checked.

With good reason. Campaign speeches can play an important role in determining whom Americans will elect. But some researchers feel that may be due not as much to content or delivery as to the particular words they contain.

They can tell that by using the cool world of mathematics to cut through the blustery bombast of politics.

Chetan Narain, who has a degree in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton and now works for Google, says the actual words in a candidate’s speech are more important than you might think.

“One thing that I think words do, especially in the modern world of Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, is that they stick with you long after the speech is over.”

Think of, ahem, Romney’s comment from a recent presidential debate of having received “binders full of women.”

Narain created a mathematical model that he says can predict who will win a presidential race, based on campaign speeches alone.

This might seem a bit crystal ball-ish. But hang on. What Narain did was analyze more than a thousand speeches from 12 presidential campaigns between 1952 to 1996, as well as 2008.

From that, he created a model that predicted whether a speech came from a winning candidate or a losing one.

Winning words

Speeches clearly can’t encapsulate all the factors that can decide an election. But they can pick up on some interesting intangibles that can help predict a victor.

Mitt Romney likes to emphasize his five-point plan for the American economy. Plan seems to be winning word. 

Narain’s model, for example, highlights three areas: a candidate’s speaking style, the most important issues of the day, and the candidate’s position on those issues.

To have a winning speech, he says, “it’s important to sound urgent, it’s important to sound positive, it’s important to sound confident that you’re going to win and it’s important to make sure that your plans are getting out there.”

There are some key words that often show up in these so-called winning speeches. One of them is very which Obama likes to wing around, as in this phrase: “Citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy.”

It’s a word that invokes a sense of urgency, a call to action.

Other winning words are president and win. Obvious, perhaps, but saying those words seems to make them ring true.

It’s also important, it seems, for a candidate to repeat Republican and Democrat to differentiate and set the tone for a speech. And mentioning Medicare is often applauded, as are the words issue and plan. It seems voters do value ideas — or at least nod to them — after all.

Rhetorical losers

However, throwing around the word Washington does not a winning speech make; it sounds insidery.

Americans also don’t care so much for the words per cent and rate, perhaps because the message can get lost in the numbers. Who wants to do long division when you just want to be inspired?

And while words like vote and elect are winners on some occasions, that is not so much the case when used in the negative, or double-negative, as Romney did here: “To the majority of Americans who now believe the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this — if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”

Narain analyzed almost 100 campaign speeches by Obama and Romney this election. In addition to piling up the winning words, Obama employed verbs 20 per cent more often than Romney, who tends to use clunkier nouns.

Verbs are winners. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that verbs can indicate optimism or enthusiasm.

(He also found that using I denotes someone who is personal, honest, and more humble than someone who says we, which creates distance from the audience. And the research indicates Obama seems to be embracing his I-phrases more often this time around.)

Parties or personalities

All of this winning talk pushed Obama over the top in the first of Narain’s analyses. Sixty per cent of his speeches were classified as winning versus only half of Romney’s.

Sometimes words can fail even the best politicians.

But that was before the two parties’ conventions at the end of the summer.

Since then, Romney has gained swagger, as his rally in Ohio last week attested: “We want real change, we want big change. We’re ready. This is our time. I need your help. We’re going to win on November 6.”

More recently, Narain has found that about 80 per cent of Romney’s speeches are now deemed to be winning, versus only 40 per cent of Obama’s.

“We have gone from a commanding Obama lead to pretty much a dead heat,” says Narain. “I think it’s really interesting to see that swing, and it’s even more exciting to see that swing roughly correlates with what we’re seeing in the polls.”

Interestingly, the model shows that until the convention, Obama uttered Democrat twice as often, and Republican seven times more than Romney.

It appeared he was the one attempting to make the campaign more about differences between the parties.

For his part, Romney has emphasized personalities, by saying Obama’s name 20 per cent more often than is the reverse.

More recently, however, Romney’s name is on the president’s tongue much more often, suggesting the race has become a bit more personal for both of them.

Listen here:

The Desperate Synonyms of Fashionspeak


I took a break to create/produce Babel, a CBC Radio program about the changing English language. Check it out at:

May 18, 2012

Prowling down the catwalk this season is something called “tribal chic” with its khaki jackets, wooden bangles and animal prints.


Images from left: Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Diane Von Furstenberg.

Tribal is just the latest vogue word to describe a fashion trend. In the last while, we’ve been presented with any number of chics — athletic, street, pajama, granny, geek, eco, even Hitler chic.

We’ve also been hit with steampunk, gothic Lolita and boho grunge.

Fashion can indeed be a strange land. And the people who live there speak a curious language with rules of its own.

“You adopt a certain vernacular when you’re part of the fashion world,” admits Canadian fashion journalist Adrian Mainella, currently editor-in-chief of online style magazine The

“It’s a way of thinking and expressing yourself, and there are certain colloquialisms that people use within the fashion world that sometimes makes sense only to the fashion world.

“That’s something that happens because people typically spend a lot of time with one another, both in work and socializing. In a lot of ways, it becomes a tribe.”

So in the spirit of cross-cultural understanding, let’s try to translate some of this language.

‘Flatforming’ the merch

In the industry itself, there are words for the folks who make the fashion world whirl.

One of them is a Jolie Madame, which originally referred to a fashionable Parisian lady, but has since crossed the pond to mean any immaculately elegant, perhaps somewhat aloof woman. You could even tack on Angelina.

The jolie-laide (pretty-ugly) is a woman who will turn heads because she is striking, though not conventionally pretty. And the petite mains (little hands) are the people who actually put all those stylish garments together.

Speaking of throwing things together, the tribe also loves to blend words, as in swancho (a sweater/poncho), and shootie (a shoe/boot).

And abbreviations such as boho (Bohemian) and merch (merchandise) are as common as stilettos and big hair on the runway. Those never seem to go out of style.

Fashionspeak serves a couple of purposes, according to Erin McKean, lexicographer and author of The Secret Lives of Dresses.

“One is to give a ‘handle’ to concepts so they can be discussed easily,” she says.

For example, why say “flat platform shoes” when you can say flatforms?

Another is that, like any jargon, once you’ve mastered it you’re in the tribe. It helps maintain the exclusivity.

Desperate synonyms

Of course you could also say that fashionspeak is really aimed at getting people to buy in to the latest styles.

Designers and retailers put out the same clothes every year — pants, shirts, dresses — but to keep them trendy, they have to sound different from the clothes that were trotted out last season.

And this is where the linguistic gymnastics begin. Nouns get converted into adjectives as in Banana Republic’s explosional florals (what is that?), statement necklace and boyfriend jacket.

Some fit what McKean calls a “yet-but” construction (originally coined by fashion writer Erika Kawalek). A new outfit is a little bit this, yet it’s also that. As in boho-yet-classy, or sumptuous-yet-sporty.

Creative suffixes abound such as “—eggings” to describe, well, anything shaped like a legging. Like jeans, and here’s hoping these jeggings will quietly go away.

There is also the kind of branding that Nancy Friedman labels “fashion singular.” That would be pant instead of pants; a kitten heel instead of heels with an ‘s’, if you please.

Friedman also lays out the “desperate synonyms” used for jeans. They used to be stonewashed, then distressed. Now they’re busted, destroyed and damaged.

And still, people buy them!

“Fun words and colourful words and puns and plays on words — others in the literati think it’s a bastardization of the English language,” says Mainella.

“I think if the consumer connects to that word and that idea, that’s what you’re ultimately trying to achieve.”

Expanding the range

While fashionspeak is probably meant to be the lingo of the in-crowd, there are signs that it’s opening up to a broader audience.

Fashion words, for example, have been burbling up in the blogosphere.

LBD famously stands for Little Black Dress. There’s also VPL (Visible Panty Line), VBS (visible bra strap). Not to mention: LSD (the dangerous little sequinned dress) and TFFF for the too-fat-for-fashion. My, it’s a catty world.


It was actually a blogger who coined a current buzzword. The Man (which brandishes stylish clothes that men just don’t get) thought up arm party for the jangle that a stack of bracelets makes on a woman’s arm.

McKean says fashion bloggers are contributing more to the lexicon these days because they have more “at-bats”. They’re constantly writing about the latest fashion, from what celebrities wore last night, to what they saw on the street this afternoon.

High-end fashion magazines, while they may have regular blogs, tend to save the big splashes for their monthly publications.

As McKean puts it, “you can limit the number of invitations to an in-person fashion show, but you can’t police the internet.” And so the tribe expands.

Now, you likely won’t hear too much of the fashionspeak blog-talk in the haute couture world. But the democratization of the lingo may be a sign that the fashion tribe is willing to take some of those tribal chic bracelets and throw a little arm party —despite themselves.

Silly Sayings


March 8, 2012

We all have words or phrases we use that we know are superfluous, ones that add nothing to what we’re saying, that annoy us when we hear them too often (especially from others).

Mine is “going forward.” Life was grand when it was confined to the boardroom, but it’s the kind of mindless phrase that’s crept into the workplace, the streets, pubs, even coffee lineups.

It’s become so ubiquitous it’s been called the adult version of “like.”

My main quibble is that the phrase simply isn’t needed. It’s redundant.

For example: “our strategy going forward.” What is a strategy if not forward-looking? Would you ever say “going backward?” (You’d probably want out of that situation pretty fast).

What’s more, it’s often randomly tacked onto ends of sentences, as in: “Let’s talk about that tomorrow, going forward.”

The folks at the Institution of Silly & Meaningless Sayings in the U.K. grew so peeved at the phrase that they created the Going-forward-ometer to monitor its use in the hope of expunging it from the English language. But they gave up in frustration.

The value of redundancy

Alas, “going forward” is just one of many redundant words sprinkled throughout our speech.

Think about them: (advance) warning, (ir)regardless, (final) conclusion, (new) innovation, (unexpected) surprise — as opposed to one of those expected surprises. And everyone’s favourite: “at the end of the day.”

Then there’s “the first time ever,” as in the United States’ soccer victory over Italy last month. Although, come to think of it, I can see why you’d want to draw that one out as long as possible.

Not so acceptable is “the reason why,” a furiously debated redundancy that critics say amounts to saying reason twice.

Indeed, people can get really worked up about those needless, niggling words. And yet, we use them all the time. Why?

Well, it could be because “redundancy isn’t inherently bad,” says Gabe Doyle, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, who has given considerable thought to the subject.

“Where we get annoyed is when language is redundant and awkward, redundant and confusing, redundant and long,” he says, throwing in the example of the good old Department of Redundancy Department.

But Doyle does make a convincing argument why redundancy is an essential part of language.

Your PIN number

One reason is that the excess words can stress a point: “This idea, for all intents and purposes, will save us from bankruptcy.”

Here, the words have what is called a paralinguistic meaning: they’re not meant to be literal, but rather conversational.

Redundant words can also clarify. Saying pre-recorded emphasizes something was recorded before the current taping, just as “surrounded on all sides” explains there is no way out. With free gift, well, it’s the “free” that gets people running!

And chew on this sentence: “The coach smiled at the player tossed the Frisbee.”

All the essential words are there but it’s hard to understand the meaning until you add two more words. “The coach smiled at the player who was tossed the Frisbee.”

(The phrasing probably also marks the difference between spoken and written English. If you say the sentence with the right intonation, it’s completely understandable.)

In addition, redundant words can add weight. We tend to say ATM machine, even though the “M” already stands for machine. The same for other acronyms, like PIN.

“PIN doesn’t have that much weight to it, it’s a single syllable so it’s not necessarily going to be stressed,” Doyle says. “When you say PIN number, you’re getting that extra weight.

“If somebody says ‘Can I have your PIN number?’ then that makes sure that PIN gets enunciated better — you hear number, you have additional information.”

The noisy channel

So don’t be afraid to say the GOP party, the SAT test and 8 a.m. in the morning. You never know when people need that extra clarification.

Doyle says our need for repetition can be explained using the “noisy channel model.”

“The idea of a noisy channel model is that you have somebody who’s speaking, and somebody who’s listening,” says Doyle. “But in between the person speaking and listening, there’s a bunch of noise — whether it’s from the environment or the listener being distracted or whatever could be causing this.”

“And so redundant information helps you overcome that noise and helps you make sure that what you really intended to say gets through to your listener.”

It reminds me of what my mom has always said: Repeat things three times if you want people to remember what you say.

Doyle says it’s hard to predict, but we could see more verbal redundancy in the future as the way we communicate changes, and we get more noise in our daily lives.

Like when you’re on your cellphone in a car and the connection is fuzzy, or out on a loud, busy street, shouting above the hissing busses and the other cellphone users shouting their own conversations.

In those situations, you tend to repeat words, saying them again and then maybe again, just to be sure. And you avoid complex words like quandary, and just say problem.

But it’s not like we’d be problem-free without redundancies. Imagine a world where we all spoke in text messages. Stripped down to essential words, texts can be simple and clear. But as we all know, they can also be easily misunderstood.

So it seems that it can be helpful to use redundant words, just not the ones that somehow mushroom into mindless buzzwords, going forward.

Listen here:

The Great Typo Hunt


Feb. 6, 2012

Amazingly, in this abbreviated, punctuation-challenged, acronym-littered world, some spelling mistakes — especially in public spaces — still get people riled up enough to want to fix them.

Take Jeff Deck, a writer and copy editor. “A sign in my neighbourhood [‘No Tresspassing’] had a typo in it,” he says.

“And I realized that I had always been noticing typos, had a peculiar radar for them, and that I could actually do something about it.”

So he and his friend Benjamin Herson grabbed some markers, chalk and correction fluid and scoured the U.S. to find and correct as many typos as they could.

Then they wrote about it in their recent book, The Great Typo Hunt.

The authors focussed on mistakes made by native speakers of English, on signs in public view.

For instance, the sign at the Space Needle in Seattle brags how the building is Seattle’s “crowing” glory. Oops. Eating crow, indeed, over a missing “n”.

Aside from the addition or deletion of the rampantly misused apostrophe, the authors found all manner of misspellings.

For instance: restuarant and restarant, hellicopter (which promises a rather hellish ride), Thrusday and meterological missing the first “o”. That one was engraved into a sign at a federal courthouse, victim to the age-old struggle with vowels and double letters.

Typo corrector Jeff Deck. 

Beefstake tomatoes and sweet papyas were found lurking in grocery stores. The proud Milwuakee Furniture people unfortunately misspelled their own namesake, and the Dream Jamb Band was clearly waiting for its own jamboree.

You also have to wonder how successful this sign could be: Lonley? You got a friend in booze. And let’s not forget the misspellings pregnacy test and Atlanta souviner — on the same sign, no less.

Overall, the guys found more than 400 typos, and were able to correct about half of them.

Lost revenue

Why bother, you might ask? It’s not like these mistakes are causing traffic jams or riots.

“In a lot of cases, typos will actually not interfere with whatever someone is trying to communicate, but there’s still damage being done,” says Deck.

“Whether it’s fair or not, when people see mistakes in signs, they’ll automatically make assumptions about the amount of care the person who created the sign puts into their products, and the level of education someone has. It can have kind of a ripple effect.”

Deck says that is especially the case with small, independent businesses that don’t have the editorial resources of a large corporation.

One analysis last year claimed that poor spelling is costing Britain’s internet businesses millions of pounds in lost revenue, and that a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half. People just click off the website.

I thought that analysis might be overstating things until I came upon an online profile, written by someone I’ve done business with for a while. The spelling was atrocious.

It flummoxed me because she’s such an articulate woman. But as I read, I could hear the click, click, click as my impression dropped a few notches. I didn’t want it to — it just happened.

Whole language

Maxine Ruvinsky says spelling errors also hurt the credibility of newspapers and books. She’s the author of Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource and teaches journalism at Thompson Rivers University in B.C.

There are all kinds of reasons why. Newspapers are outsourcing editing or having copy editors do more than just detect errors.

Then there’s the fact that we rely so much now on spell-check, which automatically corrects our documents and makes us a little less fastidious.

When you think about it, we’re actually rewarded for spelling incorrectly. Ever notice when you Google a word that’s misspelled (like Caribbean), it’s automatically corrected?

Ruvinsky, though, says we’re still living with the effects of the whole language movement, which teaches students to look at the whole word for meaning, rather than breaking it down into its components, a system that puts more attention on spelling.

She also says we can get young people to care more about spelling simply by getting them to write more.

“The best research says that when students are engaged in the topic, when they write about what they care about, they will make fewer errors of all kinds, grammatical and spelling, simply because they’re engaged.”

How to fix mistakes

For now, when you see a mistake on a sign, menu or other public space, should you fix it?

The 'crowing' glory of the Seattle Space Needle. Not something you can fix with a felt marker.

Typo Hunter Jeff Deck says it’s OK to want to correct something, but don’t just scrawl on every sign or poster that has something amiss. Go to the source. That way, you can prevent future mistakes.

And avoid making it personal — use the passive voice. Say: “I noticed there was a mistake in this sign,” instead of “I noticed you made a mistake in this sign.”

That strategy helped Deck in a popular tourist area in South Carolina. He noted that the word sweatshirts had been abbreviated to “sweats” with an extra “t”. So he went in and asked to fix it.

“The guy inside said ‘well, I can take care of it, but you’re going to have to hold the ladder.’ So I held the ladder,” says Deck. “I think sometimes even if you can just have a support role in helping people fix their spelling and grammar mistakes, it can be empowering.”

As for fixing a Twitter typo, well, many argue there are no spelling rules in the Wild West of social media.

But that may depend a bit on who you are and what message you’re trying to get across.

When Treasury Board President Tony Clement recently used the word “tonite” in a tweet, a teenager tweeted back that if he can’t spell properly, how can he run a government department?

The minister may have just been trying to be social and tweety, but it would seem that if you make a high-profile spelling slip, you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

Listen here: