Those of us who receive most of our information or entertainment in terms of the written word are becoming fewer in number. Most people listen to the news rather than read a paper. We watch television programmes and see films rather than read books. It’s not that we are illiterate; we can read perfectly well. It’s just that reading isn’t our primary form of information intake. The result of this can be that when we feel we have a story to tell and we turn to writing, we write a ‘heard’ version of the word we want to use. We write the sound it makes, not the shape of it when on paper.
This can lead to some strange anomalies which no spell checker in the world will pick up. The word we’ve written can be a perfectly good word and we may have given a correct spelling but it’s not the word we need. This is where experience comes in. A wide experience of reading will enable us to pick up these differences or a good editor will do so. Sometimes it’s the same thing. The best editors have a vast experience of reading as well as writing.
Let’s have a few examples. An orange has a peel but a bell has a peal. I’ve read about peeling bells on a few occasions and the author’s document doesn’t have that worrying little wiggly line under the word so it’s all fine, isn’t it? Your editor will (should) pick this up, even if you don’t. ‘Bare with me a moment’. You might mean let’s take our clothes off together but most likely you meant ‘bear with me’ meaning ‘I ask your forbearance or your tolerance’. Words which sound the same are known as homophones, and if you choose the wrong one you can land yourself in situations you didn’t intend.
Don’t let your hero slip his arm around your heroine’s waste unless her figure is so grotesque that her waist is a waste of time. Born and borne are very often mixed up. Born means being brought to life but borne means carried. If you compliment your wife you’re telling her how nice she looks. If you complement her, your clothing matches hers.
You may be searching for a different way to say something in your book, to avoid repetition. You’ve said bucket a couple of times. You’ve heard it referred to as a pail. Or is it a pale? It might be a white enamelled bucket in which case it is a pale pail. You need to be certain that you have the right one of a pair of homophones or your writing will not only fail to mean what you think it does, it will make people laugh. Sometimes they will be laughing at a tragic point or a scene of abject horror and not at your best offering in the humour category. Better get it right.
As if this isn’t bad enough, you are sometimes faced with three or more possible spellings of the word you can hear so clearly in your head. In dry weather, the brown grass is sere. It’s dried up. The heat can sear your feet. You might need to consult a seer to tell when it’ll rain again. But they all sound the same. A grill isn’t the same as a grille. A pallet, a palate and a palette are three different things. Unlike with a heard word, what you write isn’t always what you want to say.
Flu is influenza but a flue is the hole up your chimney. And of course, the bird flew away. I would always say that if you are in doubt and you know the sound of a word, put it into Google (other search engines are available) and check that it means what you think it does. If you don’t, there will absolutely certainly be a reader who does know.
It could be argued that it doesn’t really matter. The meaning will be clear from the context and it’s only fussy beggars who are going to complain. The problem isn’t that you didn’t write the word you meant, it’s that the word you wrote meant something entirely different. Even though it would be fine at a public reading of your work, it lets you down on the page.
One of the things which pulls me out of a story instantly is reading a word which sounds like the right one but isn’t. Fair enough – I might just be that above-mentioned fussy beggar! However, the purpose of our words is to impart information or to create a story, an atmosphere or tension for our reader. If we then present that reader with a totally different picture because we have tied our heroine to the railway tracks and checked that the rope is taught, we’re going to ruin our carefully built-up atmosphere while our reader pictures the rope sitting in class and doing hard sums.
If you are writing on a machine connected to the internet it’s simple to check that your version of the word you hear in your head is the correct one. If you’re writing on a tablet in the coffee shop and you’ve got no internet access, devise a little system for yourself – a question mark in italics, perhaps, which will remind you when checking through that you need to look this word up.
I have been known to suggest that people read their work aloud to themselves. This is a real help if you have a tendency to write stilted dialogue. It’s no help in this case, though, because your ears will hear what you want them to hear. Hearing isn’t the sense you need to bring into play at this stage. Use your eyes. Look at what you’ve written rather than simply listening to the noise it makes. Right the write word.