Get the words right

My Maths teacher at school, Mr Banerjee, one day asked us to define ‘parallel lines’.  My friend Bill piped up: “Lines that never meet.” Mr Banerjee drew two lines on the blackboard, angled to one another, like the sides of a cone, not meeting. “If extended,” clarified Bill. Mr Banerjee then extended the lines at the wider end. “In both directions,“ said Bill, realising he had been caught out.

That little exercise focused our minds on the need for precision in language, and has stayed with me these many years. Lack of precision in the use and choice of words can have two significant effects on the reader or listener. Both negative.

It can communicate something very different from your intention, and it can diminish you in the other person’s eyes. Today I’ll focus on the latter.

I’ve been reading a thriller on Kindle by someone who is described as a best-selling author, scriptwriter and former newspaper journalist. It’s not a bad read, especially as Kindle allows me to read very fast.

However, I keep stumbling over the mis-use of words and misspellings that interfere with the author’s credentials, as far as this reader is concerned.

She has one of her characters pouring over some maps, instead of poring over them. She describes someone else as a business magnet instead of magnate, and she has the main character focussing on something or other, instead of focusing on it.

The book seems to have been published by a mainstream publisher, albeit a small one. It wasn’t self-published. So how did it get past the editor or proof reader? But more importantly, how come a newspaper journalist doesn’t know the difference between words that sound the same but have greatly different meanings?

As I contemplated writing this, I realised that I will be called a nit picker or a pedant. So be it.

Among the attributes I admire in writers are erudition and education. Of course I will excuse those who have compelling tales to tell, such as harrowing personal experiences, but those are rare exceptions. Their stories will surmount the errors in their language.

In general, a writer must command the respect of the reader. That respect is lost when solecisms occur. Even The Times is guilty. Not long ago they ran a headline which included the word “span” instead of “spun” (as in “span out of control”).

A lifetime ago, a brilliant New Zealander called Eric Partridge wrote a book called “Usage and Abusage”. I recommend it to writers and editors. And to anyone else who writes about their business, in sales letters, brochures or on websites.

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