Fri, Jul 09, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Database reveals widespread errors in English usage

WORD CRIMES While spellcheckers cut typos, confusion of homonyms bedevils otherwise literate writers, a noted publisher of dictionaries reports

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

We finally got the hang of the grocer's apostrophe. But we still have little clue how to defuse, or diffuse, our other hang-ups about the correct use of words -- and computer spellcheckers only make our task harder.

This is yesterday's verdict from Oxford University Press (OUP). It reports evidence from its 300m-word database of "a new kind of problem" among otherwise relatively literate people.

One of the epidemic errors of the past 30 years -- unnecessary, misplaced or omitted apostrophes in the words "its" and "it's" -- has dwindled to only about 8 percent of people, possibly because the mistake has drawn so much ridicule. It was dubbed "the grocer's apostrophe" because of its unnecessary use in plural words on shop signs or placards (Prices' slashed!).

But it has been replaced by misuse of "diffuse" or "defuse" (as in "A coach can diffuse the situation by praising the players").

Research for the new Concise Oxford English Dictionary, published today, found that this error was committed in some 50 percent of examples on the database, making it the commonest word crime.

Second commonest is uncertainty over when to use "rein" or "reign," found in 26 percent of examples, as in "A taxi driver had free reign to charge whatever he likes."

Third most frequent (21 percent) is "tow" instead of "toe," as in "Some pointed to his refusal to tow the line under Tony Blair." Fourth (12 percent) is "pouring" instead of "poring," as in "He spent his evenings pouring over western art magazines."

Other common confusions include pedal and peddle, draw and drawer and their, there and they're.

Angus Stevenson of OUP dictionaries said: "This seems to be something of a new situation. These errors are occurring in texts that are otherwise quite well-spelled, possibly because of the increasing use of spellcheckers. Spellcheckers can tell you whether a word is correctly spelled -- but not whether it is properly used.

"Also, we find that people are picking up words and phrases from the media and bolting them together into fully formed sentences."

The OUP database contains mainly written word usages. To measure speech, it used to include recordings from radio but now takes examples from the Internet instead.

"People are increasingly writing on the Internet as if it was a spoken rather than a written medium, with all the mistakes which arise through doing that," Stevenson said.

Newly coined or revived words and phrases printed for the first time in the latest concise dictionary include metrosexual, sex up, congestion charge, health tourism, pole dancing, speed dating and threequel (a second sequel).

factbox:

diffuse - defuse

reign - rein

tow - toe

pour - pore

draw - drawer

compliment - complement

discreet - discrete

affect - effect

flare - flair

grisly - grizzly

it's - its

loath - loathe

loose - lose

peddle - pedal

principal - principle

stationery - stationary

whose - who's

their, there, and they're

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