Spot-check or spot check – Do the details matter?

Do you know what I love about the English language? The fact that there are words which are either written the same, or sound the same (or both) but are not quite the same in meaning: ‘read’ for example, as in, ‘I read a book every night before going to bed’. So far so good. But if you were turning the pages of the book in question the night before, i.e, in the past, you would write, ‘I read the book last night’. The word ‘read’ looks exactly the same as in the first example but you pronounce it differently; it’s pronounced the same as ‘red’ which, as you no doubt know, is one of the primary colours and often used to express passion or anger (possibly the colour you see if you’re trying to learn English and have to deal with such confounding rules).

So it’s only from the context that you can understand what is meant.

One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s recent words of the day was ‘spot-check’, a verb (= action word) which, according to their definition means; ‘To subject to a spot check’. What? To spot-check means to carry out a spot check? The sharp-eyed reader will see that the verb spot-check has a dash in between the two words, whilst the noun, the ‘thing’, does not. Huh?

Disregarding the fact that the OED definition of spot-check isn’t a particularly good definition at all (we’re still none the wiser if we don’t actually know what spot check means), I love the subtlety of it. One tiny little dash and you have to re-write your sentence completely. Because it would be wrong to write ‘The teacher carried out a spot-check on her students to make sure they had their text books with them’, just as it would be wrong to write ‘The teacher spot checked her students to make sure they had their text books with them’. Ok, not the most literary sentence ever written in the English language, but you get the point.

You could call it nit-picking and unimportant, and in a way it is, of course. But where would language be, any language, without such subtleties? If we disregard these tiny spelling and punctuation differences, aren’t we ‘dumbing down’ our language, impoverishing it? Sure, it’s easier if we disregard conventions telling us when to put a dash in-between two words, or how to spell and pronounce a word correctly (read vs red for example), but by doing so aren’t we doing our language and, by extension, our culture, a disservice?

For me, it’s these discrepancies and illogical little nit-picking rules that make language such a fascinating form of communication, that enrich our culture and help us express who we really are.


What do you think?

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