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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 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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