Under the Whether: Fix embarrassing word errors
I’ve seen some very sick sentences lately. One in particular made me wince in pain and laugh at the same time. Back in May, I was unlucky enough to suffer from a painful ear infection. Aside from 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.”
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, but now that I’m healed perhaps I should tell them 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, confusing the unready. 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 eight, 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. (You can “pour” while you pore, but please make sure it’s something liquid.) As a wordsmith, you must protect your “throne.” (If you sit on a “thrown,” your subjects will throw you off it immediately.) As a writing professional, you must stand up for correct writing “principles.” (You can stand up for a school “principal” if one is in trouble.)
Now that you know about this devastating illness, you can work towards a cure. You’re probably already taking some basic precautions. You look words up in the dictionary, and you use Spell Check on every piece. Forgive me for this blunt warning, butt pleas dew knot re-lie on Spell Check too fined yore miss-takes! Spell Check 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. When you proofread yourself, imagine it’s a worst-case scenario. Suspect it’s wrong and it might be. Start thinking like a proofreader. Pair up similar-sounding words in your brain, and 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 will 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 you’re chant mite even help yew fined sum other errors, two!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.”
Ask Me a Question
If you have a writing, grammar, style or punctuation question, send an e-mail message to curiouscase at sign hotmail dot com.
Add Your Own Criminal Sentence!
If you find a particularly terrible sentence somewhere, post it for all to see (go here and put it in the Comments section).