Site, Sight, and the Spell Check Syndrome

By Maeve Maddox

Today I found a plastic bag on my front door. A yellow sticker identified it as a bag for the Scouting Food Drive. Being a writer and a grammar nazi, I never just glance at things like this. It is my curse to read labels in their entirety.

In small print I was instructed to leave the bag, with food inside, “in plain site” on my porch.

My first surge of censure was for the Scout leaders who had submitted incorrect copy to the printer. The second surge was for the printer who hadn’t bothered to read the copy for errors before printing it. Then, at the very bottom of the sticker, I saw that the printing had been donated by a local corporate entity, a very large company with international sales. I’m sure it must employ educated people to see to such things as printing and advertising. So why “in plain site” and not, as the context called for, in plain sight?

I’d bet that the person responsible knows the difference between site and sight and would redden in embarrassment if called on it. I think the error is a symptom of Spell Check Syndrome.

Spell check catches only those misspellings that do not represent any word at all. It will catch such howlers as “recieve,” “seperate,” and “dalmation,” but not homonyms like site/sight, and rite/right.

Computers are great, but they are no substitute for the human brain. Run spell check by all means. But then run your own eyes over your writing before submitting it.

In its usual use, site (noun) is an area, a piece of ground, a place:
This is the site of a prehistoric village.

As a noun, sight is the sense of vision, or something seen:
Louis Braille lost his sight at the age of three.
A favorite tourist sight is the Tower of London.

Sight can also refer to the device on a gun that helps one to aim:
The sight on this rifle is slightly bent.

Sight can be a verb: Tell me when you sight the buffalo herd.

Sight occurs in several idioms:
Keep the enemy in sight.
You’re a sight for sore eyes
(i.e., a welcome sight).
His newest book is out of sight (beyond comparison)! (slang)
Dear me, you look a sight (have a bedraggled or disreputable appearance)!
They’ve got a sight of grandchildren (a great many). (dialect)

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16 Responses to “Site, Sight, and the Spell Check Syndrome”

  • klgrant

    I could see “tourist sight” or “tourist site” both making sense.

    Often, the most difficult challenge when proofing copy is to give the document your full attention, especially when you have multiple projects within sight (so to speak). And, unlike misspelled words, these homonyms don’t jump out at you on a casual glance.

  • Deborah

    So ” … in a plain site” would have been correct? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • klgrant

    Maybe they meant you should leave the donated food at an airportโ€”in a plane site. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • H Devaraja Rao

    Spell check catches only those misspellngs that do not represent any word at all.

    (misspellngs) Misspellings.

  • Maeve

    Deborah,
    no, “in a plain site” is not idiomatic English.

    klgrant,
    Probably not.

  • Phyllis T. Fenton

    check out your Tower of London example. It’s more likely a

    tourist SITE rather than a SIGHT. It may be a SIGHT to

    remember, but it’s on the grounds of a tourist SITE.

  • Mari

    Spellcheck is only as smart as the person using it. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The built-in one in Word has a ton of misspelled words which I would absolutely love to be able to get to to correct!

  • Pat Mitchell

    I wish he would have written it correctly.

    The improper use of “would” is another common error you can “right” about.

  • Maeve

    Devaraja,
    Durned if that SCS (Spell Check Syndrome) isn’t contagious!

  • Maeve

    Phyllis,
    I stand by my example. Tourists go to see the sights. They may be told that Tower Green was the site of many executions, but the Tower of London is a popular destination for people who take “sightseeing tours.”

  • Penny

    This reminds me of an error I have begun to notice: “web sight.” I find this one particularly grating.

  • Maeve

    Penny,
    That IS odd. Usually the shift is to the simpler version of a word.

  • M

    Sometimes these little mistakes are very funny, and being ironic (or just sad), just like you, never glance at things like that. And sometimes it makes me laugh out loud for a long time. e.g. On a box of building material from China detailing the origins of the items:

    Nail India
    Screw Taiwan

    This almost killed me.

    But sometimes they’re downright annoying. Especially when you spot it in academic or professional sources. I find that lawyers are usually very astute to this, whilst doctors, on the other, are not – and that’s worrying because you can be sure that the lawyer will definitely get you or what e/she is after, but the doctor can give you the wrong medicine, or worse, cut you in the wrong place! (an exaggeration, but you get what I mean). I proofread quite a lot and its exasperating to find that the most typos come from the British and the Americans. The use of “they’re” and “their” for example. I have never seen this from an Asian. Although typically Asians use far less complex grammar, and the British and Americans are competent in this area, nonetheless, I think you would agree with me that typos are a lot more aggravating than simple grammar.

    That said, I am from Asia. In fact, I’m oriental (as the British like to call me and for some strange reason Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are referred to as “Asian”!) and I find it especially mad that my British and American counterparts ask me to proof read their works.

    Having said that, the irony would be finding a typo in my blog and/or comments!

  • M

    I’ve already spotted several grammatical errors in my comment above. Irony – gotta love it!

  • Michele

    Hi Maeve,
    Nearly every page of online reading I do includes a misspelled word or a word with an apostrophe added representing “possessive” when the obvious intention was only to pluralize e.g. pro’s vs. pros I’ve begun to think I could make a whole lot of money offering my services, not as a proofreader (too formal and detailed), but simply as a human spell checker for websites and advertisers worldwide. Absolutely no editing…simply me helping you express your ‘actual word intention’! I only wish I could figure out how to sell it.
    LOL
    Michele

  • Richard

    The verbs get equally confused – The bank or a government department may need to sight evidence of your address or whatever (I’ve seen both site and cite used in this context),
    while a student writing an essay should cite all their sources (I’ve also seen this wrong), and lastly, a developer may site a playground behind the apartments.

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