Writers and editors have a lot to juggle in making prose presentable: big-picture items like accuracy, clarity, flow and structure, as well as details like grammar, spelling, punctuation and word choice.
Details matter: One wrong word—even a misplaced letter—can change the meaning of a sentence, or make it confusing. This is why editors especially need a keen eye for detail.
One of the regular features that Grammar Monkeys runs on Twitter is “When spell-check won’t help”—sentences that have a wrong word that’s still a word. It’s not flagged by spell-check, but it’s a mistake that throws the whole sentence off—or makes it unintentionally funny. We find a lot of these in copy, and now people tweet them to us as well.
These errors fall into several types:
The one-letter-off typo
A single letter can make a big difference.
“The company’s head of new produce development…” (new product)
“The heaving helping of caviar…” (heaping)
“The pops concert, canon launch and fireworks show…” (cannon)
“Moral was low in that office.” (morale)
“A list of businesses that asses the additional charge…” (assess)
The autocorrect typo
When computers suggest corrections or automatically correct words to what they think you mean, they sometimes get it wrong. (This phenomenon has a name: The Cupertino Effect.) Newspapers have had to run corrections for mistakenly calling a columnist a communist and a socialite a socialist, both of which were probably this sort of error.
“The restaurant offers traditional fare severed Japanese-style.” (served)
“The man, a decedent of Austrian immigrants…” (descendant)
“He testified for the prostitution.” (prosecution)
“He has become aquatinted with relatives in Germany.” (acquainted)
“It’s like killing two brides with one stone.” (birds)
The wrong word
These can be homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently) or words that are just commonly confused.
“He stopped to get a drink to cleanse his palette.” (palate)
“He took the reigns as CEO in March.” (reins)
“Baseball-size hell fell on the town.” (hail)
“Get a sneak peak.” (peek)
“Many land owners lease hunting rites to their land.” (rights)
The one-letter-off “facto”
These may be the trickiest, because when you’re looking at writing on the micro level, picking at details, you don’t always think about the big picture.
“Honoring troops killed in the wars in Iran and Afghanistan.” (We may not like Iran, but we’re at war in Iraq.)
“The nation hit its debt limit of $14.3 million in May.” (If only — it’s $14.3 trillion. This is why editors need to be mindful of math, too.)
As using a calculator does not make one an accountant, using spell-check does not make one an editor. Spell-check is a useful tool, but it’s no substitute for careful, conscientious reading.
This post first ran on Ragan.com in July 2011.