Eliminate Common Writing Mistakes

Let me just say, spell-check is not your friend. While it is ostensibly a useful service intended to help improve the quality of your written work, it is in actuality the product of a plot between Bill Gates, Richard Stallman, and Kim Jong Il, who are working together to undermine America’s public image in preparation for a non-violent overthrow of our country and our way of life. Really! It’s the only possible explanation for why spell-checking a document allows so many embarrassing and often hilarious mistakes to remain in the final document – mistakes that generally make the writer look more stupid than s/he would if there had been an uncorrected typo or two.

Let me give you an example. Recently I graded a paper in which a student listed the kinds of jobs traditionally held by women. They meant to write “nursing, teaching, etcetera”, as far as I can guess; what they ended up with was “nursing, teaching, excreta.” Now, this might well sum up the social position of women in much of American history, but I don’t think it’s what the author meant to say.

The point is, spell-check won’t catch a lot of mistakes, so it’s important to express yourself in clear English before spell-check is ever engaged. This is even more important because spell-check doesn’t even apply in a lot of cases, like spoken language where we tend to make a lot of mistakes because we’re not really thinking much about how we’re expressing ourselves – which can be deadly in the wrong circumstances, like a big presentation or a job interview.

Those poor speaking skills transfer over into our written work. What makes it even worse is that students and others learn that the best writing is often praised for its “conversational” tone, for the way it captures the rhythms and cadences of speech. So they write like they speak, thinking that it’s easy, when the reality is that the best writers work incredibly hard to make their work “sound” like the way people talk – and most good writers never get there.

So what kind of errors do people make? Allow me to list a few of my personal pet peeves – feel free to list your own in the comments. I’ll avoid the easy ones, like “their/there/they’re” and “than/then” because a) “their” low-hanging fruit (see how annoying that is?!) and b) as it happens the Gates/Stallman/Kim Jong Il Triad, realizing that we’re onto them, has responded by making Office 2007 very adept at correcting these misuses according to their context.

  • Supposably: This one’s more common in speech than writing (at least in my experience — and spell-check actually will catch this one). What you mean is “supposedly”, which means roughly “according to my supposition”. “Supposably” supposedly stems from the many other “-ably” words like “reasonably” and “variably” and would mean something like “able to be supposed”, if it were a word, which it’s not.
  • “Aisle” vs. “isle”: An assignment in one of my classes asks students to visit a toy store and look at how toys are marketed. I’ve never had a student write about the aisles in the toy store; they always write “isles”. Isles are big hunks of land surrounded by water and probably wouldn’t fit in your average Toys R Us; aisles, on the other hand, are the walkways lined with shelves such as you’d find in a store.
  • “Role” vs. “roll”. One rolls dice, wheels, cookie dough, or unsuspecting victims,; one plays a role in a play or in society. One’s a verb, the other a noun.
  • “Now and days”: I wouldn’t believe this one if I hadn’t seen it repeatedly. It means “nowadays”; in student papers, it is usually contrasted with “back in the day”, which is another pet peeve of mine but at least it makes grammatical sense.
  • “Could of”, “would of”, and “should of”: This is a case where the way words sound when they’re spoken is transcribed directly into print. The correct form is “could/would/should have“, but when we speak we usually contract them into “could’ve” and so on, which sounds like “could of”.
  • “Apart” vs. “a part”: I have a special fondness for this product of a missing space typo and sloppy spell-checking, because it spells out the philosophy laid out by the unnamed main character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. After trying and failing to conform to American society’s expectations of a black man’s role, and then trying and failing again to manage as an outcast revolutionary, the Invisible Man resolves to be “a part of them as well as apart from them” (“them” being mainstream white society). As Ellison’s narrator’s conclusion suggests, it’s rather important to know which of those one means — “a part of” and “apart from” mean the opposite thing.
  • “Taken for granite”: Unless you’re looking at a very realistic-looking stone-finish countertop, it’s unlikely that you are going to take anything for granite! When you are discussing things that are so much a part of your life that you have ceased to take notice of them, you are taking them for granted, not for granite. Granite is a type of stone and has few needs; you don’t have to take anything for it.

There is no easy remedy for these kinds of mistakes – you just have to learn not to make them. Ask a trusted reader* to review your work to at least eliminate the ones that get through, but in the end, you have to learn not to make these mistakes in the first place. At risk are two things: clarity and credibility. Clarity because you can’t always count on your readers to put in the time and effort to figure out what you meant to write; credibility because stupid grammatical errors like this make you look at best sloppy and uncaring about your writing (and if you don’t care, why should your reader) and at worst just plain stupid.

What common writing errors drive you up the wall? Let us know in the comments.

* A trusted reader is someone you trust enough to read your work and tell you how much it sucks. This means that your mom, who loves everything you do (remember the fuss she made over your first poopy dipey?), probably isn’t a good trusted reader. You’re looking for that perfect blend of someone who likes you enough not to want to see you fail but who is cruel enough to take a certain grim pleasure in pointing out your failures. Maybe your mom is like that, on second thought. If so, fine– have her read all your work. And seek therapy – you’re going to need it!

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