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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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