Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Literate Architect, Part 1 of 2

I’m taking a couple of weeks off from work (nice way to end a busy year), and I’m home visiting family. Many members of my family are teachers and professors, and it’s because of them that I’ve learned the importance of good, clear, correct writing. Good writing includes good grammar and spelling, of course, but it also involves having a solid vocabulary and an understanding of what those words mean. My teacher and professor relatives see spelling errors and incorrect word usage errors on a regular basis, so I thought I’d pass on a few word use and spelling errors that they see on a regular basis, in hopes that you won’t make the same mistakes. Bear in mind that many of these mistakes are not only written but spoken mistakes as well.

Irregardless. Let the record show that this is not even a word. Furthermore, it’s a double negative. “Regardless” means “despite” or “in spite of”, and “ir-“ is a prefix that means not, such as “irregular”. Hence, when you say “irregardless”, what you’re really saying is “regardful.” If you’re going to put out a set of drawings “irregardless” of what the civil engineer is doing, that actually means that you’re putting out that set of drawings with great regard to what the civil engineer has going on.

And whatnot/and stuff/and all that. These are filler words that have little place in clear writing and/or speaking. Be specific, not folksy and casual. Instead of “The civil engineer needs a survey by Thursday so he can do his drawings and whatnot by next Wednesday,” use “The civil engineer needs a survey by Thursday so he can do his drawings by next Wednesday” or “…his drawings and calculations by Wednesday.” According to linguists, a few filler words here and there are acceptable in common speech because we use them to buy us time as we formulate new sentences. A constant stream of filler words in spoken language indicates that we are either talking faster than we think (not a good idea) or that we don’t really know what we’re talking about or don’t have enough information (also not a good idea). Filler words are verboten in writing—you’ve got time to think about and say what you need to say, so filler words aren’t needed unless, again, you’re not thinking about what you write as you write it and reread it.

Homonyms. These are words that are spelled differently and have different meanings but sound the same. Common homonyms in the English language are: your/you’re, hear/here, there/their/they’re, bare/bear, hair/hare, to/too/two, where/wear, stair/stare. The reason I point these out is that Spell Check will not always pick these errors up, yet your sentence suddenly looks odd and makes no sense. Of course, native English speakers can figure out what you mean—even if we don’t know that they’re called “homonyms”, we know what they are. But as native English speakers, there’s no excuse for sending out business emails with the incorrect words used.

Nucular. It’s nuclear: pronounced “noo-KLEE-urr.” It doesn’t matter what your political preference is—just pronounce and spell it correctly, please.

Masonary. This is an error particular to my profession. I hear architects and even contractors and masonry reps use this word, but again it doesn’t exist. It’s not even an adjective, like the “masonary arts.” If you want to refer to something involving bricks and CMU and stone, the word is “masonry”, not “masonary.”

Next time, we’ll talk more about language and why nuance in language is important to architects. In the meantime, if you have a question or comment or topic you’d like to see discussed here, please share it in the comments or email me at the address in the sidebar. Thanks!


  1. Thanks for "nuclear" - I will never understand where the other pronunciation came from!

    I came across your site doing a search for "homonyms"; we made a little iPhone game in which players must use homonyms to solve riddles. The game is for kids, but our site features fun facts about words that adults might enjoy as well. If your word-loving readers would like to visit www.likeitapps.com, they might learn some utterly useless (but fun) trivia associated with everyday homonyms. Keep up the good work in encouraging good language use!

  2. Great post. It reminds me of the Adolf Loos quote, "an architect is a master builder who has learned Latin."

    Maybe because what we do is so visual that in school and now in the office, the written word takes a definite back seat to the drafted line.

    However, since communication is as crucial in our field as in any other, we must strive to write as well as we draw, think, and solve problems! This post was a good step towards addressing a problem that is quite prevalent in our profession.

    *"MASONARY" ... it's like nails on a chalkboard!*

  3. Thank you for great posts, I enjoy reading your blog very much! Do you have any recommendations for books/websites that go into more detail on effective written communication techniques? If there are resources specific to architecture, all the better!

    Thank you!

  4. Anon: my favorite communication book in general is "Civilized Assertiveness For Women" by Judith McClure, PhD. It's aimed at women, but the skills are equally useful for both genders. As for written communication specifically for architects, I'm working an a book based on this blog, which will include some good skills on written communication as well. :-)