In 1990 my wife Anne came home from school and asked me if there was an easy way to collect the words that her students confused so that they might refer to their own lists on their own computers.
I put the question back to Anne: if you had such a list, what kinds of information about the confused words should be included, and how should the information look? I asked her to come up with some examples, the first few of which were effect and affect and there, their, and they’re.
We decided that we needed to show each set of confusables together so that an easy comparison could be made. We also thought that the list would include more confusables than just homonyms, words like aggravate and irritate, and good and well.
Each set of confusables would need:
- the two or more confused words
- definitions of each of the confused words
- multiple examples of usage in sentences of the confused words
Anne started collecting words, writing definitions, coming up with examples, and stored her collection in a text file until I could come up with another way.
My job was to think about how the information could be most accessible to writers using conventional word processing software like MS Word or AppleWorks (ClarisWorks back then).
A few things to consider in looking at the history of this project:
- We were (and still are) Macintosh users and the schools we were both working with were using Macs as well.
- I had little experience with databases, although FileMaker and others were out at the time.
- I had a lot of experience with HyperCard, the first user-friendly multimedia development tool, and even though its products only ran on the Macintosh, cross platform development wasn’t a concern since the audience we were building this for was mainly Mac users who could run HyperCard programs.
- There was no web at the time, and the idea of putting information like this online and having people use an online tool was unheard of except in the mainframe computer world.
So, I built a HyperCard “stack” that included:
- a field to hold the confused words
- a field to hold the definitions
- a field to hold examples of usage.
In time, Anne and I finished the stack and sold it as shareware for many years. It did well and thousands of people bought and hopefully used it. (Hopefully is correct if our users were hopeful about becoming less confused.)
Here’s a screen shot of an entry:
Many things have changed in the computer world since Anne and I first started thinking about this:
- The Macintosh has been marginalized in schools
- The HyperCard project died at Apple
- We have mixed feelings about making and buying shrink-wrapped reference software because it’s out of date almost immediately
- The web has evolved into an important part of using a computer as a tool
- We know how to build web sites
So, we put Confusing Words on the web where it existed for many years. The code and site became out of date over time and we lost interest and so, we took it down and let the domain go. It was a great run and we learned a lot, both in building the HyperCard stack and in building the web site.