Your brain on homonyms

I know very well [posted a friend of mine], really by instinct, the proper placement of apostrophes and other punctuation and the usage of words like “there, their, they’re”, “you your you’re” and so on and yet I get to typing so fast that my brain is constantly pulling the wrong one out of my hat. I get so embarrassed when I discover these mistakes later.

I love when that happens, actually, because I think it shows so much about the brain and language.

This is how I think that happens: we type by listening to the inner voice speaking in our heads…language was strictly spoken for a hundred or so thousand years before we began reading it, and very few people at all were reading and writing it until the last century or two. And typing was not invented till 150 years ago. When we direct our fingers to type we are actually listening to the narrative voice running through our heads, and then some center of the brain in turn directs the actions of our fingers to type what it is “hearing”…an impressive task, as typing is something much more complex than writing with a pen or pencil (or with a stylus on a mud tablet as they did when writing was brand new). We sort of type the way a pianist plays, hearing the music in his head and then coordinating his hands and fingers to play it. Of course, in music you can harmonize so you can use all the fingers, but writing has no harmonies (unfortunately) so its more like playing trumpet, one note on a trumpet equals one letter on a keyboard. (Both language and speech are more like playing the trumpet, too, but that’s another essay). So our typing fingers hear the sounds of the words and not see them. There, their and they’re can be placed interchangeably by our undiscriminating fingers as they are homonyms (though perhaps not in all dialects.) Some people could make the same mistake with merry, marry and Mary, though in my regionally accented ears the three sound like different words, unlike there, their and they’re. It doesn’t always happen, perhaps it’s a matter of context or syntax that enables our typing fingers to figure out the correct homonym. Sometimes, though, they mess up, and probably more than we realize because we catch ourselves making the mistake as we type. But we don’t always so quite often a homonym (i.e., words that sound alike but have different spellings) have to be scene–that is read–and not heard–that is written–to be corrected. And I notice now that I typed scene instead of seen, proving my point. Ha!

Basically, we are typing by dictating to ourselves. We hear but don’t see the words…and if we DO see the words it immediately breaks up our train of thought as reading and writing are two completely separate processes in the brain and we can’t do both simultaneously. So those their/they’re/there’s will keep popping up and their/they’re/there’s not much we can do about it except proofread–and even then if you proofread too soon your brain still has the short term memory of “hearing” what you wrote and your eyes will not always catch the mistake. Sometimes, if writing a story, it’s good to let the draft sit for an hour before proofing it, by which time that short term memory will be gone and you are actually reading what you wrote and not remembering what you narrated.

I also typed are as our….making at least two that made it past two drafts (and spell check) before I noticed them. In a digital format it’s no big deal. But years ago, when they got past me, spellcheck, my editor and at least one copy editor to wind up fast and permanent on paper in my jazz column in the LA Weekly, I would invariably be admonished by readers. You should really learn how to write, somebody would say. Usually from the safety of an email, but sometimes in person, at a jazz club, if they were drunk enough. You should learn how to write, they’d say, then totter off.

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