To too or to two

September 11, 2009

This is a copy of something I wrote on another blog, but since it probably applies mostly to computerists, which might end up being the focus of VOXIGO, I thought I’d put it up here too.

There are some common words which are often used in such a random manner that it can be a tedious task to read what was presumably intended to be a communication.

It looks like what many people do is use some kind of phonetic representation of how the words are spoken in their local dialect. Why is that? In a Californian dialect, pan pin and pen could easily be confused when talking, but I don’t see people using those words interchangeably when writing. You might think that is obvious because it’s not how written English works and it would be very confusing if it was. Yet why would someone use to instead of too or two when that would be substituting direction for degree or quantity? The confounding of those concepts by people who successfully write computer code is particularly puzzling.

To me that is a situation which needs to be addressed. If words are supposed to be English, then you shouldn’t have to do any kind of translation if you are an English speaker. Spoken English uses sounds and written English uses letters. Sounds and letters are generally not equivalent. That is one of the reasons you cannot write down what your dog says, or pronounce license plates.

Another strange habit is the substitution of the letter i for the personal pronoun I. The capitalization of the pronoun has been standard since the 15th century and was already common 200 years earlier. I guess some people just take a while longer to catch on. For those that are used to looking at code, please remember that the pronoun is ASCII 73, and not 105, nor anything else. If you prefer binary it is 01001001 but you can’t substitute any numbers when you write the code, just like you can’t substitute letters when writing English.

Spell checkers seem to be ubiquitous now. Perhaps they could be used to help people communicate with words. I see nine common words which I think should be flagged by all spell checkers every time they come up so that people can make sure that they have the right one. Here they are:

to, too, two (direction, degree, quantity)
i, I (letter of alphabet, personal pronoun)
their, there they’re (possession, place, description)
then, than (chronology, comparison)
your, you’re (possession, condition)

Although English is my second language I have gotten pretty fluent over the years, yet I still make some strange mistakes. This article is not about perfection. It is about improvement and consideration for others. Some people are obviously struggling. Everyone makes typographical or other errors and I feel it is OK to do so. I really don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings if they are genuinely trying to communicate.

The important thing is to respect your readers. Do your best to make yourself understood and not make your reader do extra work. If you are meticulous about the numbers and letters you feed your spreadsheet, compiler, or accounting program, then you obviously have respect for those programs. If you are not equally careful about the letters and numbers you use in your communication, does that mean you have less respect for people? Think about it.

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