There is a “cult of correctness,” ready to dismiss writers based on simple grammatical mistakes.
Graduate teaching assistant Jason Braun, who does not study or write about grammar exclusively, has seen it happen even at the faculty level.
In order to help writers in at least one problematic area, Braun has created HomophoneCheck.com.
“I’m not the person that’s going to hit a kid with a ruler for messing this stuff up,” Braun said.
Braun said the free application is designed to pick up mistakes that spell check and traditional word processing software miss.
The website allows users to paste text into a box. Then, Braun said 40 of the most commonly confused homophones will be highlighted if they are present.
“Any of those words, at this point, that’s what it’s checking for,” Braun said. “In a lot of ways, it’s just a single website that uses the simple application of control-find. I just took that kind of idea, and had someone write a code to make that work for a specific editing problem.”
Dan McKenzie, a computer programmer that has collaborated with Braun in the past, wrote the code for the website.
According to Braun, homophone confusion is a textual problem, since contextual clues are used to determine which word is being used in verbal speech.
“Before reading was invented, we didn’t have dyslexia,” Braun said.
Braun is dyslexic and said while homophones can be problematic for those with dyslexia, everyone can make these mistakes.
“If you’re a person who writes 10 emails a day, or if you’re a person that tries to write your paper — and I’m looking at my students here — in one evening, you are more likely to make these mistakes,” Braun said. “The more text you create, in a sense, the better odds you have at making a mistake if you’re not paying attention.”
Braun chose the selected homophones via surveys of his colleagues, fellow teachers and writers.
“That might change … depending on feedback,” Braun said.
The website highlights all 40 homophones that Braun and McKenzie programmed the website to look for.
“Whether it’s wrong or not, [it] is up to the person to make that call,” Braun said.
English Department Chair Sharon McGee said commonly confused words like homophones are something that affects writers, particularly beginning writers.
“I think this is a really good place to start in terms of having technology to help someone proofread their own writing,” McGee said. “Those are the types of things that are difficult to catch on your own sometimes.”
Braun said despite the fact he is an English teacher and has been published before, he still runs into problems with homophones.
“I thought, ‘If I’m having this problem, other people are, too,’” Braun said. “If you read blogs, if you look at Grammar Girl or even if you look at Lifehacker, there’s things about writing and proofreading. These types of words are always on the lists.”
Braun said what he is most interested in teaching is how to write a great story, how to make strong claims and how to structure a story well.
“It’s more interesting to teach that for me, and I’d be happy to automate, or use technology, to help teach the other parts,” Braun said.
Braun said it has been interesting to hear feedback about the website from different types of people.
“There are some people who are very detail-oriented and that never make a mistake on this. They’re like, ‘Who needs that? That’s a waste of time,’” Braun said.
When the website automatically highlights a homophone, it will open a box with other options. For example, if ‘there’ is typed into the text box, it will be highlighted.
“As you hover over the word, a box will drop down and show you your choices,” Braun said. “These other two options will show up [their and they’re]. Another box shows up below that, showing the part of speech each word is and each word used in a sentence.”
Braun said he sees mistakes with homophones in his students’ writing frequently.
“It’s just an editing error,” Braun said. “Sometimes, you can even blame it on the word processing.”
According to Braun, his website is not intended to replace spelling or grammar checkers.
“It’s not that spell check or grammar check is bad or that they’re not useful,” Braun said. “It’s that as useful as they are, there’s still something slipping through the cracks.”
Whether someone has written poetry, fiction, non-fiction or for an academic journal, Braun said the text is being read by people with master’s degrees in English.
“We are a very hyper-conscious group of people about these sorts of things,” Braun said. “It’s not fun to be called out on a small editing thing, and they will [call it out]. People that have made the mistake and been embarrassed by it realize how useful this is.”
In the future, Braun hopes to create more tools for writers to help automate the more technical areas of writing.
“I own PassiveVerb.com, and I’m cooking something up for that, any of the to be verbs,” Braun said. “I don’t think all passive verbs are wrong, but it’s one easy way to strengthen a lot of writing.”
Eventually, Braun said he will design an entire system out of these tools.
“It’s trying to push a writer’s word choice and understanding of a narrative to another level by removing certain things,” Braun said.
While the website can be used to improve writing, Braun said it can also be used for evil.
“We can say, ‘Now you have no reason to even make a mistake. You should stop and double check everything,’” Braun said, “but life is happening, man.”