There, their and they’re – there’s nothing to it!

My article earlier in the week about the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ garnered a couple of comments from readers, which was very nice.

Particularly as they were both complimentary.

One of them however, contained a heartfelt plea for me to: “rid the world of the incorrect use of ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’“.

Well, I’m not sure I can promise to do exactly that, but it did get me to thinking, And as I have been pondering for a while what kind of articles I should include on the site, I decided that a series on the importance of accurate English might be useful.

But in the spirit of Just the right words, I wanted to make it a little different. Quirky, with a dash of creativity.

So here’s my response to the distinction between these three, in the form of a poem:

There, their, they’re – don’t despair!

There are quite a lot of people who really do not care
a jot about the difference between there, their and they’re.
They couldn’t give a monkey’s that their slap-dash approach
causes groans of disbelief and murmurs of reproach.

Oblivious and arrogant they drive us to despair,
when it comes to being accurate they’re simply laissez-faire.
They plough on making blunders without the least regard
for how it makes us others feel. It isn’t even hard!

‘There’ is geographical, referring to a place
Or use it with the verb to be, as in ‘there is your face’.
‘Their’ with an i is used to indicate possession
so their mistake to spell it ‘there’ is quite an indiscretion.

And they’re is ‘they are’ shortened; what is known as a contraction
To use that one instead of ‘there’ drives people to distraction.
So now there can be no excuse. Please pass this on to share
a way of being accurate with there, their and they’re.

There.

Simple as that.
There, their and they're - not the same T shirt

Been there, (not their or they're) got the T-shirt

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Effect Affect Problems and Edgar Allan Poe

Effect Affect Problems

Teacher with 'affect' and 'effect' on blackboard

So, which one is it?

Effect or Affect?  Affected or Effected?

If I had charged a tenner every time I had been asked that over the past ten years in my job, I could probably have funded my first six months as a freelancer at least!

As the renowned words man, the only person in the company with the job title of ‘writer’, and the one responsible for ensuring everyone used clear, accurate and understandable language, I was used to getting asked questions about grammar, punctuation and correct usage of words. I actively encouraged it.

However, I was always surprised by the unremitting regularity of this particular conundrum – whether to use ‘effect’ or ‘affect’, ‘affected’ or ‘effected’. It used to happen once at least every couple of weeks. In a company that employed around 120 people.

But the most surprising thing was that it was always the same people who asked the question.  About 10 or 12 of them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as we all tend to have the odd ‘blind spot’ when it comes to selecting the right option when words sound the same, but are spelled differently. As well as the ‘effect/affect’ ensemble, there were also the ‘principal/principle’ posse and the ‘stationery/stationary’ squad who contacted me to resolve their particular query on a slightly less regular basis.

I did my utmost to try to help those affected by the effect/affect problem, and make the distinction between them as clear as I could. I explained as clearly as possible, with examples and occasionally diagrams, that affect was in almost all cases used as a verb, and that effect was in almost all cases used as a noun, apart from in certain sectors of the banking industry where the almost Dickensian phrase ‘to effect a transaction’ was still in use, to their eternal shame.

Affect or effect? The pies have it ....

The penny would then appear to have dropped, the baffled expression on their face replaced with a smile, and everything would be right with the world again.

Until the next time.

In most cases, people were confused about the verb form, rather than the noun. They couldn’t decide between ‘affected’ and ‘effected’, or how something would ‘affect’ a situation or ‘effect’ it. For some of them, instinct said ‘affected’, but they just didn’t have the confidence to make the choice when they put fingers to keyboard.

And that’s the key to it I think.

Confidence.

If you have a choice between two similar sounding words and you know you struggle to tell the difference between them, human nature tends to remind you of the weakness and undermine your confidence before you’ve even started the sentence.

Memory jogger

That’s where you need a little extra help.

And where a mnemonic, or memory jogger can provide you with the boost you need.

For principal v principle, thanks to the prevalence of The Simpsons, the mere mention of ‘Principal Skinner’ and the image of Bart sat outside his office, is sufficient to encourage people to make the right choice.

And for stationery v stationary there’s the old stand-by of ‘e for envelope’, which I always follow up with ‘a’ for ‘ain’t moving’ to make doubly sure of the distinction.

But affect v effect is a little tougher on that score. I tried gamely to seal the ‘effect as noun’ distinction by urging them to think of ‘special effects’, but it didn’t really seem to do the trick. And the fact that ‘affected’ is also a fairly commonly used adjective only served to cloud an already foggy issue.

Then a few weeks ago, I came across a possible solution, in the form of a huge black bird.

A raven

RAVEN (Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun) or CROW (Can't Remember Obvious Word)?

Raven Mad

A few weeks back, I spotted that someone I follow on Twitter who regularly posts business writing tips (Clare Lynch – @goodcopybadcopy) had included one that made me sit up and take notice.

It was, simply: RAVEN.

Remember: Affect Verb Effect Noun.

That’s pretty good, I thought.

And then, shortly afterwards I thought: “But what if you can’t remember ‘Raven’? How helpful would it be then? What if you were suddenly hit by big black bird block, and found yourself with a CROW instead?

Can’t Remember Obvious Word.

And even those of you blessed with a visual memory, can you honestly say that you can truly distinguish between a raven and a crow, even in your mind’s eye?

On balance, I decided that although the RAVEN was good, I needed more. There had to be more associations, an extra layer that would secure the bird in my memory and convince me that the mnemonic would work for the sometimes verbally challenged folk out there.

And then it hit me.

Edgar Allan Poe

A sudden flashback to my student days, at Warwick University, and a book I found in the library that utterly fascinated me. It was by Edgar Allan Poe, and explained in detail how he had written his famous poem, ‘The Raven’, and why he had chosen the words he had at each stage of its progress.

So for me, ‘The Raven’ is forever associated with Edgar Allan Poe.

And then I spotted it.

Edgar Allan Poe has the same initial letters as the Effect Affect Problem.

So when you think of the Effect Affect Problem, think of Edgar Allan Poe, which will lead you to The Raven, which will provide you with the memory jogging answer.

It might be a bit of a stretch, it might be a little contrived, it might complicate the issue even further.

But it might just work.

And if it does, if it helps one or two of those people out there who battle with the Effect Affect Problem on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis, it will all be worth it.

Because then they will enquire of me “Nevermore!”

Words’ worth

Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth

Mmmm ...what rhymes with 'skinny hand'?

Someone called me that today at work. Well, via the gift of instant messenger to be more precise, as I was working from home today. It was meant as a compliment, and came from a colleague who has benefited from my wordsmithery, plain English, punctuation and spelling expertise on a number of occasions.

I liked it as a term of endearment, it’s not a bad nickname, and I’ve been called plenty worse in my time. As Romantic Poets go, I’m much more of a Coleridge man myself, although Wordsworth did apparently contribute to my favourite stanza of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner“, thus:

“I fear thee Ancient Mariner, I fear thy skinny hand/for thou art long and lank and brown, as is the ribbed sea sand.”

What are words worth?

But it got me to thinking. What are words worth? Do people value them? And if so, how highly?

This is a subject close to my heart at the moment. I’m currently on the cusp of transitioning from full-time employment as a writer into the wonderful world of freelance business writing. It’s a very exciting experience, if a little daunting, but I am sure it’s the right thing for me. However, it has forced me to do some serious thinking about what my words are worth, and to put a value on them. For the first time in my career I have had to look at my skills in a new way, been forced to recognise the true value of what I do and then put a price on it. It felt really weird to do that. Especially as you naturally need to charge more on a freelance basis than you would as an employee.

I’m a very good writer – so people tell me! I have a lot of experience and plenty of practice of writing across a whole range of styles for a host of different audiences on a variety of diverse topics. But I think I took those skills for granted and assumed that they weren’t out of the ordinary. Everyone can write, I thought. This is clearly not the case. The freelance writing community wouldn’t even exist if that was true of course.

What has been revelatory and very encouraging to me during the past week though, is that there are plenty of businesses, organisations and individuals who really value the expertise of professional writers and are prepared to invest in those skills. Thankfully there are plenty of people out there who are great at growing their businesses, but recognise that they need a little help with getting their message out to their customers and beyond. And that’s where we come in.

A community of talent

I say ‘we’, because something else I’ve been particularly conscious of and grateful for this week, is that I am not alone. There is a lively community of hugely talented, enthusiastic, creative  writers out there, doing fantastic work. Joining 26, an association of professional writers, has been a very positive experience for me and given me access to useful resources (cracking books on copywriting by John Simmons and Roger Horberry) as well as introducing me to some very helpful people (Tim Rich for starters). And taking the plunge into the Tweetosphere in the past week or so has made me very conscious of just how many like-minded, witty, creative souls are out there making their living through words. Today I stumbled across the tweetings of Clare Lynch (@goodcopybadcopy) and was excited to discover someone equally passionate about good quality, accurately written business copy with a sharp sense of humour.

So, some people really understand what words are worth and are prepared to pay a competitive price to secure the talent to write the copy they need to sell their products and services and engage and enlist their customers.

Cant spel, wont spel

But what about the ones who don’t really care? Who place little or no value on the accuracy of their writing, and seem to have no understanding of the effects that has on their corporate brand? More (April) Fool them. There seem to be a lot of people out there, and a surprising number of them in the corporate world, who think that proper spelling and correct usage of punctuation is unimportant (it almost killed me to put that heading in). Their argument tends to be that nobody worries about that sort of thing these days, apart from the pedants or the syntactically obsessed.

Rubbish.

Customers’ expectations of service standards have never been higher – most consider great service a basic human right – and they have never had more channels to vent their collective spleen if they are treated badly. Most businesses would never dream of taking a half-hearted approach to their product range, delivery systems or even the telephone skills of their customer service staff, so why are written communications not treated with as much care?

Whilst there’s little empirical evidence to suggest that customers are leaving a company or supplier in their droves because of a spelling mistake or a misplaced apostrophe, a consistent lack of attention to detail in corporate communications will definitely have a long-term impact. We are not yet a nation of complainers, and we do tend to have a lot of patience with poor service, but surely it’s not just the professionals amongst us who wince when they see  a badly spelled, mistake-ridden website, email, leaflet or brochure.

What’s your reputation worth?

Accuracy costs nothing. Apart from a little time, care, and possibly a few quid judiciously spent on employing a professional to supply just the right words. However, consistent inaccuracy as a result of disdain for correctly punctuated, well presented English could cost a brand their reputation. I surely can’t be the only consumer out there who thinks “if they can’t get a few sentences of text right, what chance have they got of providing a high quality service?”.

I’m proud to be a ‘Wordsworth’. I appreciate the beauty and the power of words, and understand their impact. And I care enough to use them properly.

I’d sum up my thinking on this subject as follows:

They say: “I never know where to put an apostrophe, so I don’t bother. Who cares if I get it wrong?”. I say: “I’m the same with decimal points. My day rate is £25000.00.”

What do you think? Do you care? Does accuracy matter in the age of txt-spk?

Answers in a comments box please ……