Twenty Common Spelling and Usage Mistakes, Including Some Surprises

One of the most important lessons I have learned as a copy editor is that there are always more copyediting lessons to be learned. The Mashable article partially reproduced below includes a couple of new lessons for me. Entitled “20 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make,” it sets out many familiar mistakes, like “accept” vs. “except,” “effect” vs. “affect,” and “discreet” vs. “discrete.” Yes, I already knew about those.

But did you know that the term “just deserts” is supposed to be spelled like that, with only one “s” in the middle? Or that “fortuitous” does not mean “a lucky accident”? Check out the first five on the list, then click on the link that follows, to read the rest.

1. INVARIABLY

If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.

2. COMPRISE/COMPOSE

A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.

3. FREE REIN

The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the g relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.

4. JUST DESERTS

There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.

5. TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS

Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”

Click here to read the rest. Be forewarned, however, that number 19 inadvertently includes a common mistake of its own, which, in all honesty, makes me feel a little better about those that I didn’t know. And for another look at “i.e.” vs. “eg.,” click here.

A Very Common (and Easily Fixed!) Gaffe

Here’s a writing style issue that I’ve seen rather frequently lately, both while editing and while out in the wilds of the real world. And although some would argue it isn’t a rule and therefore isn’t required, I speak on behalf of all readers when I say that following this suggestion makes your writing immeasurably easier to read. It’s the idea of parallel structure (also referred to as parallel construction or parallelism). It’s a lovely term to toss around because it sounds brainy, but it’s really pretty simple to understand, once you see an example.

Happily, I just came across a terrific demonstration on my Twitter feed. Thanks so much to David Pogue, whom I see often on CBS Sunday Morning, for posting this:

Do you see the problem? It’s actually fairly easy to miss, because our brains usually fix it subconsciously, like when we read transposed letters as if they weren’t transposed. Here Marriott has listed three things, but they don’t exactly all go together, at least not the way the line was written.

The rule of parallel structure is that all items in a list or series need to be written in the same grammatical form. But don’t worry, you don’t necessarily have to be able to identify grammatical forms. You can usually tell if the items are in the same form if they each work with the same word or phrase to which they’re attached.

Looking at Marriott’s line, the items in the list are the words gosee, and do, and happily for us, a test phrase is provided: more of what you love. But do each of the items — gosee, and do — work with more of what you love? That is the test.

So, let’s see: Do more of what you love. That works. See more of what you love. That also works. But Go more of what you love . . . definitely does not work. So although it might seem like the three terms are parallel, one of these things is actually not like the other. That’s faulty parallel structure.

Here are some options to make the list parallel:

  • Just leave the wrong word off the list: Do and see more of what you love.
  • Go could also be combined with see, as in Go to see and do more of what you love. Here’s how that works with the test: Do more of what you love. That works, as we already saw. Go to see more of what you love, using the revised item, also works.
  • Go! See and do more of what you love! works because it takes go out of the list and puts it in a separate sentence.

Whether or not those suggestions work as well from an advertising standpoint is outside of my wheelhouse, and of course ad campaigns aren’t exactly renowned for their perfect sentence structure, but I thank Marriott and David Pogue for supplying the excellent example.

Always confirm that each element of a list within a sentence or group of sentences is in the same form. Better yet, make sure that you have a professional copy editor review your work before you publish it. If you don’t, you may end up with someone from CBS Sunday Morning posting your error on Twitter. No one wants that.

You Just Might Be Using a Few Too Many Dashes–Yes, Really

Bloggers, this one’s for you, though I know of a few book authors who could use the reminder. While a happy splash of dashes may seem to help illuminate your text and maybe even add some action to it, the unintended result is usually a distraction and disruption to the reader.

Here’s a great piece from Slate that does an exceptional job of illustrating the problem. You’ll see a reference to the “em dash”; it’s the dash you’re used to seeing in this kind of application. Longer than a hyphen, the “em” refers to the amount of space taken up by the dash: the width of the letter “m.”

According to the Associated Press StylebookSlate’s bible for all things punctuation- and grammar-related—there are two main prose uses—the abrupt change and the series within a phrase—for the em dash. The guide does not explicitly say that writers can use the dash in lieu of properly crafting sentences, or instead of a comma or a parenthetical or a colon—and yet in practical usage, we do. A lot—or so I have observed lately. America’s finest prose—in blogs, magazines, newspapers, or novels—is littered with so many dashes among the dots it’s as if the language is signaling distress in Morse code.

What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?

Read the entire article to get the full effect; it certainly has helped drive the point home to me. Like it has been for the article’s author, the dash has been my “embarrassing best friend,” so believe me, I have felt the pain of having the crutch of the dash taken out of my needy and desperately clutching hands. But you can do this! Give it a try!

With Thanks to Weird Al, This is Why You Need an Editor

This Weird Al video is hilarious, but please know that I do not endorse his insults towards those who make writing mistakes. I am not the grammar police, even when you hire me. I’m more of a grammar counselor; my red pen is gentle. Nevertheless, if this video encourages people to see that copy editors are here to help, then thank you, Weird Al: