RICK: Well, with the Internet and online dictionaries that problem has largely become a thing of the past. Here are my two favorite, reliable dictionary sites:
The Merriam-Webster dictionary is considered the authority for US English word spellings and usage by editors and style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style. That one should be your primary authority. However, because the language is changing so rapidly, Merriam-Webster is not always perfectly up to date and may not contain every new word. Only if you have good cause to doubt it should you go with another source.
If you type “psycology” into each of them, you’ll get an error message AND suggestions of possible correct words. However, “nife” in dictionary.com doesn’t give an error, but it’s also clear that this is not the spelling for the eating utensil or weapon. By using both dictionaries, you do find the correct word.
What about word errors with homonyms (sound-alike words, more properly called homophones)? If you look those up or use a spell checker, you don’t see the error. What if you write “He stepped on the breaks” instead of the correct form “He stepped on the brakes”? Well, if you look up “breaks” in both dictionaries, dictionary.com and scroll down, you will come to a “CAN BE CONFUSED” section where both words are listed, and you can click on them.
My point is that what Kellee said, “If you don’t know how to spell it, how can you find it in the dictionary?” is no longer a valid excuse for not being able to find the correct spelling.
Thing brings up another issue. What if you don’t know that the word you’ve used has other homophones associated with it. There are many words that we’ve heard, common words, that we don’t often see in print. One of my favorites in this regard is “He slapped Jim hard and it didn’t phase him at all.” The correct word here is “faze” not “phase.” Now, as I typed this in to MS Word 2010, I got a blue underline telling me Word didn’t like it. When I right-clicked it, Word gave me “faze” as a possible correction. Yes, sometimes spell checkers do get things right, but it did not complain about “breaks” in the example above, though.
KELLEE: Typos are inevitable, but being able to spot them could earn you extra points or save you from embarrassment. I once had a friend who wrote an essay for a school assignment. She forgot the “L” in public… (she corrected it before turning it in). It’s not just the spelling. Knowing the correct word to use is helpful, especially when words sound and/or look the same.
RICK: It’s easy to dismiss our errors if we don’t intend to show our work to anyone, or if they’re just notes for our benefit. I maintain that even this is a dangerous practice because it ultimately leads to bad writing habits. I see all too many writers get so wrapped up in their writing that they forget about checking their work for errors and end up posting their work for others to see with all those errors in them. Non-critical readers will often overlook a few typos, but Scott and I have said many times before here that error-riddled book is going to hurt you at some point. This is, as the title of this post says, the best way for you NOT to be taken seriously as a writer.
What about when you’re writing a rough draft to be shown to a critique group? Is it okay to leave the errors in that case? After all, you’re only interested in what people think of the story.
When presenting something that has so many spelling, grammar, and punctuation (we call it SPAG) errors, it can be very difficult to slog through. I’ve seen people post things without periods, the first word in a sentence not capitalized sentences, “i” instead of “I” for the first-person pronoun, and misspellings or misuses of a significant percentage of the words in the piece. It’s difficult for most readers to read material like this, let alone read it objectively. Sometimes it appears as if these people typed the piece on a cell phone then posted from there. When I see work posted like this, I have to question the sincerity of the writer.
Let me put this even more bluntly. There is no excuse for posting work like this. If you know your SPAG sucks, then you need to find a way to make it not suck–BEFORE YOU POST IT! Whether that involves taking a basic English course or finding someone to tutor you one-on-one, you need to make the effort. If you want to be a writer and have people take your work seriously, then you have to be able to use the tools of the language. Even the most brilliantly conceived story in the world will go nowhere if the writer doesn’t know how to present it in a readable form.
Now, with that rant out of the way, let’s get back to some basic language instruction.
Compound words–two or more words that express a single idea–present many problems. Is it one word, two words, or hyphenated? “Post Office is two words, “notebook” is one word, and a hand-off in football is hyphenated.
There are no rules except this one guideline: anytime two words are expressing a single idea, there’s a good chance the compound should be either hyphenated or one word. And you need to look them up to be sure–even if you’ve memorized Merriam-Webster, because the language is changing too fast. For example, Merriam-Webster lists “rain check” as two words, but dictionary.com (based on the Random House dictionary) shows “raincheck” as an alternative spelling. I’ll be very surprised of Merriam-Webster doesn’t do the same in the near future.
Here’s a set of examples from my upcoming punctuation book that should convince you why you need to look up compound words unless it’s one you already know, not just think you know:
basketball, racquetball, tennis ball, rail fence, railroad, rain check, raincoat, bathroom, dining room, breakup, break-in, cross section, cross-reference, crossbow, schoolhouse, courthouse, safe house, vice president, vice-chancellor, stepfather, step stool, brand-new, brand name, brand-name (adjective), high school, name-dropping, handwriting, fine-tuner, fine-tune (verb), color code (noun), color-code (verb), double-click (noun and verb), upgrade, downgrade, bullshit
Here’s one more suggestion. If you’re not sure and you’re typing it into a word processing program (not into your cell phone), spell it as one word. If it’s right, the spell checker will accept it. If the spell checker flags it as an error, look it up to be sure. The spell checker may be correct, but spell checkers are not always correct or as up to date as they should be.
The following (mostly courtesy of Kellee) are common mistakes by many writers. In these, a hyphen, a letter, or one word vs. two words can change the meaning.
into vs. in to
I would turn you in to the police. If I was going to turn you into the police, I’d have to be a wizard.
Put another way, I would tell your crime to the police, but it would be impossible for me to make you an officer.
onto vs. on to
He held on to the rope so he could swing out over the water and jump onto the raft.
NOTE: There are MANY “into/in to” and “onto/on to” cases out there, not just these. Be sure you get them right.
anyone vs. any one
Did anyone see any one of those robbers? Anyone is a person while any one means one of a group. Can I have a jacket? Any one of those in the closet will do. Anyone can grab it for me.
all right vs. alright
The use of alright is not all right for some editors, though some will accept it. Alright is a disputed spelling.
all ready vs. already
Unlike alright, already is a word. It means earlier than expected. He’s here to pick you up already even though the movie doesn’t start for another hour. All ready means complete. My baking soda volcano is all ready for presentation.
altogether vs. all together
Again, altogether is a word. It means in total. There are five people in my family altogether (in total). All together means in a group. The kids and the dogs are all together in bed.
come-on vs. come on
Come on then, give me your best come-on.
Not the best sentence in the world, but hopefully it does its job. The hyphen completely changes the meaning of the words.
envelop (cover or conceal) vs. envelope (use to mail something in)
You can envelop the envelope.
peak (a point) vs. peek (to look at) vs. pique (to excite or interest)
Taking a peek at Kilimanjaro’s lofty peak might pique your interest in mountain climbing.
bare (naked) vs. bear (an animal or to carry or withstand)
If you shave a bear bare, can he bear the taunts of his friends?
then (what comes next) vs. than (a comparison)
I showed Carol my dress. Then she said, “Mine is prettier than yours.”
lose (fail to win or fail to possess) vs. loose (not tight)
If just one bolt is loose, we might lose a tire.
KELLEE: Everyone struggles with spelling and correct word usage at some time or other, and no one can remember all the proper rules. The point isn’t to remember them, the point is to use them–correctly. Even if you have to pin notes on your walls, save them to your computer, or write them on your arm, with enough use they’ll soon become second nature.
For more homonyms/homophones and words that are commonly confused, follow this link:
RICK: Alan Cooper’s list is one of the most complete around. Only rarely have I found something not listed on it (populous/populace isn’t in his list). Bookmark this list in your Internet browser along with the two dictionary links mentioned.
–Kellee and Rick