Under the whether: Fix embarrassing word errors
ONLINE COLUMN: Watch Your Language
Published: October 1, 2009
I've seen some very sick sentences lately. One in particular made me both wince in pain and laugh. Back in May, I was unlucky enough to suffer from a painful ear infection. In addition to going to the doc multiple times and being dosed with various antibiotics, I went to a medical Web site to learn more about my unfortunate condition. This is when I learned the painful truth of my illness: "If the infection builds up, the eardrum may rupture to allow the puss to flow out." Bonnie Trenga
Oh, I see. A cat is to blame for my ruptured eardrum. When I read this error, I was in too much pain to inform the site about it. Now that I'm healed, perhaps I should write to the editors to let them know that one of their sentences is gravely ill. I wouldn't be surprised if I encountered more sick sentences on this Web site. And I hate to tell you this, but many of your sentences undoubtedly suffer from this illness, too.
Our language is beautiful but a pain in the eardrum as well. Too many words sound alike--or are similar to other words, e.g., "pus" and "puss." English contains pairs and trios such as "principal"/"principle," "hanger"/"hangar" and "palate"/"pallet"/"palette." The list is interminable; the possibilities for word mix-ups, endless.
As a copy editor, I've met many sentences that are at death's door, and I callously laugh at their plight. Word errors are funny--as long as someone else has goofed. It's great to put your readers at ease with a joke or two, but if they're smiling at what you wrote in all seriousness, that's not good.
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" when referring to a luscious brown dessert. I can excuse myself because I was only 8, but if you write for a living, there is no excuse.
If you've ever written "discreet" instead of "discrete," 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 thanked an editor for "pouring" over your manuscript or that you described a queen sitting on her "thrown."
As a diligent writer, you must "pore" over your work carefully and protect your "throne." Now that you know about this devastating illness, you can work toward a cure. You're probably already taking some basic precautions. You look words up in the dictionary, and you use your spell-checker on every piece. Forgive me for this blunt warning, butt pleas dew knot re-lie on your spell-checker too fined yore miss-takes! Your spell-checker misses a lot.
Frankly, the only way to catch word errors is to turn into a suspicious hypochondriac. Not very relaxing, but it gets the job done. Start thinking like a proofreader by pairing up similar-sounding words in your brain. When you come across one of the words, do a double take to ensure you've written the right one. For me, alarms go off with these words: "it's" and "its," "compliment" and "complement," "affect" and "effect," "conscience" and "conscious," "hoard" and "horde," and my favorite--"public" and that other word without the "l."
Even when my brain is ready to catch mistakes, I still need to do more. It is so difficult to find lurking word errors that I have to resort to a 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 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 make you shriek in pain and horror if you discover them after they've been printed. No one wants to write sick sentences, so consider following my unconventional advice. Your writing will undoubtedly become cleaner, and your chant might even help you find other errors, too!
Here are some amusing Criminal Sentences for you to fix:
Criminal Sentence 1: "The patient's body becomes tense as she steals herself to endure the dental procedure."
Criminal Sentence 2: "Often the words are out before we can reign them in."
Criminal Sentence 3: "All parents must make sure there kids are taking the right shoes."
Criminal Sentence 4: "I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it's effecting them."
Criminal Sentence 5: "The writer would like to thank the many who leant their time, wisdom and patience to the improvement of this book."
Please send your answers to email@example.com. The doctor will be in and ready to examine your sentences.
Criminal Sentence 1: "The patient's body becomes tense as she steels herself to endure the dental procedure."
Criminal Sentence 2: "Often the words are out before we can rein them in."
Criminal Sentence 3: "All parents must make sure their kids are taking the right shoes."
Criminal Sentence 4: "I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it's affecting them."
Criminal Sentence 5: "The writer would like to thank the many who lent their time, wisdom and patience to the improvement of this book."
Bonnie Trenga is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide. She blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, which features the daily Criminal Sentence and other posts about writing. She is also a guest writer for the popular Grammar Girl podcast. She's been a copy editor since 1996 and a mom since 2001. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Posted Oct. 1, 2009