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Eliminate Common Writing Mistakes

Eliminate Common Writing Mistakes
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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    • 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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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