Carelessness and its humorous effects

Most of us write everyday. We consider ourselves accurate and fast communicators. We send hundreds of emails to family, friends, and business acquaintances. We send text messages that use specific vocabularies, abbreviations, and emoticons. We are adept at changing our vocabulary and grammar to account for all our different audiences. However, most of us are not as careful as we ought to be, particularly when writing to people we have never met or people with whom we have business relationships.

On December 26th, 2011, I sent an email to an airline asking for a quote on reserving 30 seats for a group traveling internationally in July of 2012. The airline sent back the quote and included a deadline for securing the seats at the named price: December 10th, 2011, 16 days before I had even placed my request. I understand that these errors occur, particularly when we use form documents to simplify our jobs and communications, but I needed an accurate date. I wrote back to the agent, asking politely "Would you please provide me with an accurate date through which the quote will be valid?"

The agent returned my email quickly, perhaps too quickly. Her answer read, "Thank you for paying attention to the date.  If this had been a test, you would have past it."

If this had been a test in one of my classes, the agent would not have passed. Not only did her original quote show inaccuracy, but her teasing response displayed her low competence with language. "Past" is the opposite of future, while passed is the opposite of fail. These words, past and passed, are homophones, words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. In writing, mistakes with homophones are both common and potentially confusing (as well as providing moments of derision on the part of more careful or more educated writers).

Carelessness with language, particularly when you are just beginning to establish a relationship, can easily affect how a person sees you and evaluates your competence, as carelessness with language suggests carelessness in other areas.

A recent article, whose title and location I cannot remember, mentioned interestingly that while spelling errors have gone down with the advent of spell-check, word usage errors have increased dramatically. Spellcheck can determine when you have spelled a word incorrectly, but it cannot yet tell you when you have used the wrong word. The difference between ewe and you is pretty significant and I would guess they are not often used interchangeably. Then/than, affect/effect, new/knew, cents/scents/sense and all the others matter, especially in writing, when you aren't there to explain which one you meant to use.