Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Write right? Write on

People tell me this a lot: “I wanted to write you, but I was afraid of making mistakes.” It’s a shame that people would not want to talk or write to me just because they think I’ll catch (and include in a column?) any little language transgression.

I received this great, clever email from a college professor, written in telegraph style: “Read your article in the paper. STOP! Laughed a lot. STOP! Writing in short spurts to try to avoid misuse of words. STOP!”

We all make mistakes in life, of course, and we all make them in our use of language. Pick up a cereal box, read an advertising flyer, even open a novel and you’ll find mistakes.

Unfortunately, I’m not immune to it myself. In a recent column I wrote this: “For all of us, the words we choose and how we say them are, to varying degrees, dialectical.” In response, alert reader Sandy wrote: “You want to say ‘dialectal,’ not ‘dialectical.’” You’re right, Sandy, you are so right. I say thank you (and at home, alone, I holler “ARRRRRRRRGH!”).

I just flat out had typed the wrong word, and I failed to catch it when I proofread my own writing. Which leads us (yes, finally!) to today’s topic: getting it right.

The best advice is to get someone else to proofread your writing for you. The closer we are to what we’re reading — if we write it ourselves, we’re very close indeed — the more apt we are to overlook obvious errors.

Proofreading is not easy. Did you know that we are able to read and understand words and sentences that have letters missing or are terribly jumbled? Check this out; it’s been on the Web in many guises and discussions, and it is interesting:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.
If you’re able to decipher that, just imagine how your brain will accept other little errors in text, especially if they are isolated. A tip: Let’s say a co-worker asks you to look over a proof of an advertisement, a business card or some other small print job. If you will read it backwards, it will really improve your chances of catching spelling errors. It won’t help with other mistakes, of course, like omitted words, but it does isolate words to make spelling more obvious.

Try it with this sentence. Start with “sentence” and read to the left. Do it now, please. See how it makes you read more slowly and examine each word?

Do pay attention to what words you use and how you use them, but don’t get paralyzed from fear of making little mistakes. They are practically impossible to avoid making. The News & Record has some truly talented writers and award-winner editors, and mistakes still happen. (Getting a daily paper out the door is a miracle; don’t look for perfection!) See if you spot the mistakes in these three examples from the N&R (ignore the punctuation; that’s not the problem).

“Princeton isn’t exactly desperate for attention — not when it counts a couple of U.S. presidents and Nobel Peace winners among its alumnus”

“High School Football Practice Gets Underway”

“They … will give shoppers a 10 percent discount on Crane and William Arthur stationary orders through the end of September”

It should have read “among its alumni,” “Gets Under Way” and “stationery.” Big errors? Certainly not. Life goes on. Now for one of my favorites.

From syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts: “It was … a violent, controversial and moving account of the crucifixion of Jesus that lead many Jewish leaders to accuse Gibson of an anti-Jewish agenda.”

Did you see it? It happens often — writers mentally say the word “led” but type it “lead.” And editors sometimes rush past it, also hearing the right word in their minds. Right sound, wrong word.

Try for perfection but accept the best you can do at the time. Shoot, Pitts has won a Pulitzer Prize. All you need to do is drop me an email. Write on.


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