Friday, May 8, 2009

Melting Brains in the Post-college Young Adult

What happens to people's brains in their twenties that makes homophones suddenly much more confusing than they were previously? I for one grew up never confusing to, too, and two; there, their, and they're; it's and its; since and sense; lead and led; who's and whose or any other set of homophones—ever. I remember doing assignment after assignment of fill-in-the-blank exercises on homophones in English classes from probably third or fourth grade until sometime in high school, but I always thought those assignments were stupid. I seemed to have been born knowing how to use these words correctly and had, in fact, never even realized that there was any reason to confuse them. I wondered if there really were people who thought of homophone pairs (not pears) as the same word and who actually needed to take a minute to distinguish between them, for I had always just unconsciously used each one in the appropriate context and had never even grouped them in pairs as things that could possibly be confused. Their similar sounds were significant only for use in puns.

Sometime toward the end of college, however, I began to notice the occasional slip in my writing, usually while instant messaging. I would almost always catch it before sending and fix it panickedly, annoyed that my brain was starting to fail me. Over the past few years, it has worsened, and I often notice myself making it's/its errors or even more egregious substitutions (at least as far as degree of difference in meaning is concerned). At first, it was only the occasional it's/its or their/there error, but lately, I've noticed right/write confusion, and then twice in one day last week, I noticed that I had written "sense" for "since." Luckily, I caught them. (I can only hope I catch all my errors!) Today I wrote "loose" for "lose" (which isn't even a homophone, or at least not the way I pronounce them—are there regional pronunciations in which those do sound the same?). I even once wrote "tern" for "turn." (Actually, that one, I'm going to assume, was actually a misspelling rather than a homophone confusion, as terns don't really spend a lot of time at the forefront of my mind.)

I would be really concerned about very, very early-onset Alzheimer's or be worried that perhaps the occasional Wiener Schnitzel I ate as a child did indeed contain mad cow (as seems to be the concern of the Red Cross) and that I was now expressing symptoms of Creuztfeld-Jakob, except for the fact that I've noticed the same phenomenon in others. My roommate, another nerd and grammar Nazi like myself, has started complaining about the odd stupid moment concerning homophones. In instant messaging my brother, I've noticed an increase in the number of homophone mistakes he makes. (Of course, he does catch them...most of the time. The other day, though, he said he could feel my judgment through the computer and took another look, catching an its/it's error I had been glaring at.) Several other friends, all of whom are the sort whose souls cry when they encounter such mistakes, are suddenly popping up making them themselves. It's the people who always used to lament these mistakes loudly among themselves, somewhat mocking the poor saps who didn't understand these basic tenets (not tenants—not quite a homophone, but commonly confused regardless) of the English language, who have now begun to commit these same egregious mistakes—and it's so much worse for them! Maybe it's some sort of karmic thing—the universe giving us uppity know-it-alls our just deserts (not desserts—OK, this is one that I actually didn't know, but simply because this word is never used outside that phrase, so I wasn't familiar with it).

All I can think is that for some reason, humans become more phonologically-oriented around the age of twenty, and thus, we write what we hear in our heads rather than what we "see" or otherwise think/represent while we're writing. (Related: phonological representation is much less deep a way of encoding than semantic, and as such, it seems not only particularly prone to errors but also perhaps more likely to occur when one is distracted.) I wonder if this is simply an age thing or if it is somehow related to multitasking or reductions in attention spans. Is the internet making my generation stupid? If so, I can only imagine what it's doing to the kids who are supposed to be learning proper speech and writing now, and who probably get over half of their reading practice on the internet, where there's no guarantee anyone is spelling or using any word correctly. Actually, that might be a large part of the problem: increased exposure to incorrect usage, both via the internet and via working as a preceptor and in the writing lab in college could be skewing my (and my like-minded peers' (not piers)) grammatical compass(es). Continued sightings (not citings or sitings) of misused words could be, in effect, lowering the grammatical defenses of hordes (not hoards) of those who normally speak and write correctly.

What is to be done? If anyone has a solution to this or a better explanation than mine, please let me know. In the meantime, my brain will continue exploding every time I commit this grammar sin.

1 comment:

  1. I kind of like the idea of karmic revenge for uppity-ness...heh.