Language is a beautiful, shifting thing, but every tongue on the planet comes with rules you simply can’t break, and when you use words the wrong way you can end up looking like a dummy. That dilutes your argument and undermines your message. After all, isn’t communicating something the whole point?
It can be a singular act of bravery to hand your precious written work to another person and ask them to tell you what’s wrong with it. The more you love it, the harder it feels – but unless you never want it read, it’s got to be done. One of the great lessons I learned from journalism is that editing is a good thing. Writing is work, and like all workers, writers get tired, and make mistakes, and have off days. Sometimes that additional pair of eyes can tweak your laborious metaphor and make it sing. Sometimes just a quick scan will save you from legal action. Sometimes a grumpy old subeditor will frown at you so grumpily that you will never misspell “manoeuvre” again.
Even when you don’t have an extra pair of eyes on hand, it’s worth taking a break – a day is good if you can stretch to it – and looking at your work again before you send it off. Here are a few places where it’s easy to trip up
But it’s art
Recently I was contacted by an old connection, asking me to consider digging out some writing from about 20 years ago, when I fancied myself a poet. It was a fairly excruciating experience, but since I have been tentatively stretching my creative muscles again, I found myself doodling the odd new verse. I started writing poetry about the time I stopped being a newspaper reporter and found I had to add things like adjectives. This time, with seven years’ newspaper editing under my belt, it was even worse.
Poet me: “The wind sets shifting borders.”
Editor me: “No it doesn’t. If they’re shifting they’re not set. If they’re set, they’re not shifting.”
Poet me: “But I like the alliteration!”
Editor me: “Well, it’s your poem. I mean, don’t let me stop you. It’s not like I pointed out that wind is made of air and therefore can’t create a border anyway. If you want to say “sets shifting” because you think it’s all poetical, then do carry on.”
Poet me: *side-eyes, grumbles, rewrites*
But it’s in the dictionary
I once hung out with a man who read dictionaries for fun. This led to heated discussions about correct usage from time to time, followed by look-ups. But most people do not stash dictionaries all around their houses. Quite a few don’t even use the one that comes with their word processing packages. If they did, fewer embarrassments would arise. However, there can be drawbacks to uncritical use of that big book.
I did French at high school. Whenever I found out there was more than one French word for something, I’d pick whichever one I liked the look of best and use that. I was later to realise how dumb that approach was when I met people new to English who spoke of making their ablutions in the morning, or swooned over the beautiful stench of a perfume. When you speak a language really well, you understand subtleties of meaning, context and tone that are often lost on people who don’t. Which leads me to…
I thought I read it somewhere
I’ve been marking a lot of undergraduate university essays lately, and I’ve found that for all their grammatical errors, if there’s one set of students who seldom get basic meaning wrong, it’s the second language speakers. It was the same when I was editing newspapers – the second-language writers were frequently better than the local ones. Kiwis, bizarrely, are shockingly bad for using words they think mean one thing that actually mean something else – “portray” for exemplify, “enforce” for reinforce or support – just throwing any old preposition where one is needed, and for tripping up over homonyms (“chicken coup*”, “poured over journals”). We speak our own languages with great sophistication, but when we try to get sophisticated, we frequently fail.
I think I’ve worked out the reason. It’s because we don’t read all that much. Sure, we’re constantly online now, but we’re mostly skimming chatty blog posts, giggling at gifs or listening to audio. Most of us spend a lot less time with our noses in a book, and the breadth and depth of the things we read is vastly reduced on a day to day basis. When we come to write something, it seems that we try to emulate what we think we’ve read – but without that ongoing practice, our skills are unformed or rusty. Add to that the regular appearance in print of these errors, and it’s a vicious circle.
But Spellcheck, tho
One of these days I’m going to have to accept “loosing” weight to fit into some new “flaired” pants as legitimate usage, so common have these misspellings become. I’m hoping I am in my grave before that happens. Spellcheck does not speak English. Spellcheck does nothing more than pass over words it recognises, and highlight words that it doesn’t. This is why chickens stage coups, academics pour themselves onto pages and you never know which two/too/to is going to turn up. You should always, always run a spellcheck. But don’t expect it to catch those errors.
Of course, there’s another thing you can do after you’ve done all of this, and that’s find a beta reader, or hire an editor. Don’t fear that second set of eyes. It’s the difference between writing that’s loose, and writing that loses.
*Yes, I know coop and coup are not homonyms, but I’m guessing these error-makers didn’t prance about making fools of themselves using ill-chosen words in sixth form French, either.