Episode 130: August 29, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is words that can get you into trouble.
Guest-writer Bonnie Trenga writes:
Once upon a time, some mistaken citizens stood up for American principals, p-r-i-n-c-i-p-a-l-s. Across the Atlantic, a nutty queen sat on her thrown, t-h-r-o-w-n. Somewhere nearby, an inattentive writer poured over his manuscript, p-o-u-r-e-d. All this made me, a copy editor, chuckle. Yeah, I guess I could defend a school principal if necessary. But no, I’ve never sat on a past participle before. And, tell me again what that special someone was pouring? Comic relief, perhaps?
Common Word Errors
Yes, today is Wrong Word Day, and we’ll be spending some time laughing at other writers. Word errors are funny—as long as someone else has goofed. And it’s easy to goof, because lots of words sound or look alike. Probably thousands of pairs and trios exist to confuse the unready. Hanger with an e sounds like hangar with an a. Palate, meaning "the roof of your mouth," sounds like pallet, meaning "a portable platform," and also like palette, meaning "a range of colors," and they're all spelled differently. You get the idea. The list is interminable; the possibilities for word mix-ups, endless.
Word errors are a real problem because they slip in unnoticed and are extremely hard to catch—even if you’re a seasoned writer who proofreads closely. Even copy editors aren’t immune: I once wrote chocolate moose—m-o-o-s-e—when referring to a luscious brown dessert. I can excuse myself because I was only eight, but if you write for a living, there is no excuse.
Why to Avoid Common Word Errors
As a writing professional, you must stand up for correct writing principles, with an le. (Although you can also stand up for a principal, with a pal, if one is in trouble.) As a wordsmith, you must protect your throne, t-h-r-o-n-e. (If you sit on a thrown, with an -o-w-n, your subjects will throw you off immediately.) As a diligent writer, you must pore over your work carefully, p-o-r-e. (You can pour—p-o-u-r—while you pore, but please make sure it’s something liquid.)
When you pick the wrong word, your readers laugh at your amusing sentence. It’s great to put them at ease with a joke or two, but if they’re smiling at what you wrote in all seriousness, that’s not good. Other readers don’t laugh; they cringe and wince, lament and vent. Some sticklers just stop reading.
If you’ve ever written discreet ending in -eet instead of discrete ending in -ete, it’s really not your fault, though. You can blame your brain, which sometimes takes a little vacation. You’re writing quickly so your ideas don’t evaporate. You’re paying attention to plot and dialogue. You’re thinking about that luscious brown dessert you promised yourself—if you write enough. You’re completely unaware that you accidentally wrote this:
“The patient’s body becomes tense as she steals herself to endure the dental procedure.”
S-t-e-a-l-s? I’m dialing 911 right now to report that patient for larceny!
How to Avoid Word Errors
All these similar-sounding words give our language depth, but they can also give you a big headache. However, you don’t have to celebrate Wrong Word Day if you don’t want to. You’re probably already taking some basic precautions. You look words up in the dictionary, and you use spell check on every piece. Butt, dew knot re-lie on Spell Check too fined yore miss-takes! It doesn't work for these troublesome homophones.
Frankly, the only way to catch word errors is to become suspicious, paranoid, and worried. Not very relaxing, but it gets the job done. When you proofread yourself, imagine it’s a worst-case scenario. Suspect it’s wrong and it might be. The other day, I came across this sentence: “The strong current—with an -ent—hindered the rescue.” I couldn’t help laughing as if it had really said, “The strong currant (with an -ant) hindered the rescue.” I imagined a large, beefy fruit blocking the way. There wasn’t a mistake, but my brain was ready—and enjoying itself, too.
Start thinking like a proofreader. Pair up similar-sounding words in your brain, and when you come across one, do a double take to ensure you’ve written the right one. For me, alarms go off with these words: it’s with and without an apostrophe, compliment with an i and complement with an e, affect and effect, conscience and conscious, hoard as in "to hoard the chocolate" and horde as in "the angry horde came after the chocolate," and my favorite—public and that other word without the l.
Even when my brain is ready, I still need to do more. It is so difficult to find lurking word errors that I have to resort to an embarrassing robotic chant to catch them. I can’t just read the words as if I were a regular person relaxing with a book. I have to shut myself up in the attic and say each word aloud in a monotone, syllable by syllable. This slow, ridiculous reading prevents my brain from skimming over the words. You should try it too, but not in front of a first date or anyone you want to impress.
Word errors will embarrass you and will make you shriek in horror if you discover them after they’ve been printed. But if you try my unconventional advice to be a bit loony, your writing will be cleaner. You’re chant mite even help yew fined sum other errors, two!