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.
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.