No, I’m not peeved by people who can’t keep “their,” “they’re” and “there” straight

My sweet wife is peeved.  She wrote a Facebook post and started a thread.  Apparently others are peeved too.  As a linguist, I don’t get peeved. Well, sometimes I do.  But I try to observe and learn.

[ I think there are some linguistic developments we can do without, but people have always thought that.  In the 19th century, people made fun of a new kind of verb phrase, e.g., “The house is being built.”  Who needs the “being”? Can’t we just say “The house is a-building”?  No, because language changes.  OK, my short list of developments we can do without: (1) It’s “HOME in on”. (2) Don’t say “proverbial” if it doesn’t relate to an actual proverb (“He’s slow and steady, like the proverbial tortoise” – not “The judge threw the proverbial book at him.”)…and reference proverbs accurately; thus, Hillary’s bitterness is not “sour grapes” because in the proverb, the fox decides the grapes are sour.  Can you imagine Hillary saying she really didn’t want to win?  (3) The new jargon of news reporting and politics: “optics,” “pushback,” blowback,” “double down,” “walk back,” and more.  It’s the language of posturing and appearances, which is what we in PR called them before “optics” came along.  BTW, I don’t object to overuse of “like” or “I’m all…”, or “He goes…” – they’re cute.]

OK, back to the three homonyms.  How can people get to adulthood and not keep them straight?

They sound alike, so to get the correct spelling, you have to know which was intended.  To do that, you have to master four somewhat sophisticated linguistic concepts: possession (“their”), contraction (“they’re”), and the two very different uses of “there” (positional and existential, e.g., “There’s a farmer’s market there,” the existential “there” is kind of hard to explain to beginners).  Kids learn them partly by observation (reading), practice and direct instruction.

I cannot tell you why some people fail to grasp these concepts in childhood, but I can tell you that they function as a quick intellectual litmus test: if you can‘t keep the homonyms straight, what else can’t you get right, what don’t you know, and have you got anything of substance to say?

Another fact that the linguist cannot ignore: we judge people, fairly or unfairly, by their language.  That’s because we do reveal much about ourselves as we spontaneously spew forth words and sentences in our conversation, texts, and emails.  “Let me hear you talk, and I will tell you who you are.”  (Nom DePlume)