A miniscule portion of the living, evolving creature we know as the English language gets passed along to us through the written word. So many of the everyday words and phrases we use came to us verbally, making converting them into a written language with standardized spelling especially difficult.
And while the internet and social media come to us largely through writing, I think we can all agree they have not been a help with spelling and grammar.
Does it really matter?
Actually, making errors when passing along idiomatic words and phrases (or even ones that might be less familiar) is a natural part of the evolution and changes of language.
But it doesn’t help us in the present when we’re failing to impress our readers with our intelligence and writing skills because we don’t know whether to use whit or wit. Or harebrained or hairbrained.
(It’s harebrained, by the way. The other depends on the context. And derring-do is preferable to daring-do. And en route rather than in or on route.)
It’s best to check what the current popular spelling is. A good copyeditor should be able to help you with this. If they don’t have the answer readily at hand, they should have the resources to find out.
However, there are a number of resources available to you, as well, if you prefer to educate yourself instead of relying on others. Your preferred dictionary is a good first stop, especially for single common words, but many dictionaries don’t cover phrases or go into depth about when certain variations are best.
My favorite resource is Garner’s Modern English Usage. Brian Garner tends to lean toward Chicago style in preferences, but the book is full of useful entries explaining preferred usage and regionality of certain words and phrases. It’s definitely a language nerd’s resource, but sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.
But there are numerous usage guides and dictionaries out there, some with incredibly focused specializations, whether you’re looking for Appalachian regionalisms or baseball jargon.
You can learn so much by stopping occasionally and questioning your assumptions about spelling, especially when it comes to idioms and less familiar terms.
Your writing may be many of your readers’ only or first exposure to some words and phrases, and they’re counting on you to get it right.
But remember that your first job as a writer is to get the words on the page. If stopping to check your spelling is disrupting your workflow, it might be best to flag it to look up later and move on. You can always come back to it later, and that’s also what they pay copyeditors for.
In modern American English, we don’t use a lot of diacritical marks (e.g., é, ñ, or ü) in our daily writing and typing.
For example, I had to dig through Word’s list of symbols to find the ones I’ve used so far because I don’t have the keyboard shortcuts memorized. Actually, the fact that they’re not a standard feature of most keyboards is telling.
However, there are some words in the English language where the inclusion of diacritical marks is still recommended. One of the most common is résumé.
We’re all guilty of it, in everyday speech and in our writing. Circumlocution is one of those points where language and cultural norms cross.
In fact, circumlocution means talking around something.
Ask any group of word nerds to list their grammar pet peeves, and you won’t have to wait long before someone starts bemoaning the fact that no one knows the difference between compose and comprise these days.
It’s true that about anywhere you look, the two terms seem to be used interchangeably by many writers. But are they the same? And if not, what’s the difference?
We all want to sound intelligent when we’re speaking or writing, and that means we genuinely try to adhere to standard grammar rules.
However, sometimes, we try a little too hard. We try so hard to sound right that we end up getting it very wrong.
One of the most common mistakes is to use I or myself in a place where a simple me is called for.
(X indicates a grammatically incorrect example sentence.)
I still remember that lesson in elementary school when the teacher tried to convince us that, when someone calls and asks for us, the correct response is, “This is she (or whatever pronoun is appropriate in your case).” Yeah, we weren’t buying it either.
It was awkward and unnatural, and we’d never heard anyone say it in real life. But what is the correct usage?
As a writer you’ve probably noticed that the way we write and the way we speak are often very different. And one of the ways our written language differs from our spoken language lies in the completeness of our thoughts.
When we speak, we rarely take the time to make sure all of our sentences are complete and grammatical. Quite often, we throw out related fragments of ideas and expect our listeners to combine those with context, vocal intonation, facial expressions, and gestures to reconstruct our meaning.
However, when we write, all we have to communicate with readers are our words, so we’re much more careful to form complete and complex sentences. But is there a place for sentence fragments in our writing?
As with most other questions relating to writing, it depends.
We often think of the search for gender-neutral pronouns as a modern development, a result of the emerging public recognition of multiple genders and the difficulty with keeping up with terminology that seems to change daily. However, writers have been working at this problem for far longer.
Aside from the growing number of genders people identify as, there are instances when gender is unknown. For instance, an unidentified thief could be a man or a woman, but if we use he to refer to the thief, we run the risk of creating unintentional bias and missing the true culprit.
If you pay attention to the conversations around you, you may notice that most of us default to using they as both singular and plural, much the same way we do with you. Unfortunately, when it comes to writing, things aren’t so simple.
If you’ve ever worked with an editor before, you’ve probably noticed an annoying tendency. We don’t care about your fancy formatting or the polish and look you worked so hard on achieving with your manuscript. In fact, the prettier and fancier your document, the more we seem to be annoyed by it.
The reason is that all of the layout and design work should be done after the words are edited and ready for print. You don’t varnish a table before you finish putting it together and sanding out the imperfections.
That means don’t bother with pasting all of your extra material, like tables, graphs, charts, photos, and drawings, into the document, because the actual text could change dramatically in the course of editing.
Also, it just plain gets in the way. And one of the first things your editor will do when you send them your beautifully arranged manuscript is to pull out all of that visual material.
It creates visual clutter and makes the file size large and unwieldy. Many word processors and computers balk at opening large files and can get glitchy and unpredictable when you try to work with files that are too big.
Several weeks ago, I talked about how to get useful feedback on your writing from others. Some of those others are likely authors from your writing group, and if you’re asking for their reviews on your work, it’s only fair that you return the favor.
Here are a few suggestions on making sure your peer reviews are actually useful.
Besides, reading and thinking critically about the work of others will serve to make you a better writer as well.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.