I can’t tell you how embarrassing it is, when I’m writing a blog about good English, to find something I’ve just posted contains a couple of howling errors. Well, I can actually: it’s pretty embarrassing. Imagine you’re a professional bird watcher and you claim a house sparrow is a Lapland bunting, or you’re a tour guide in a country house and you get your gothic mixed up with your baroque.
Then again, I’m no expert on architecture but I’m pretty sure I know gothic when I see it, and though only a part time bird watcher, I would never misidentify a sparrow. But even the best writers make errors sometimes. Why is this? Because, I suppose, they’re concentrating on the content rather than the form, or because they’re tired, or because for some ineffable reason it is harder to see one’s own errors than others’, or because – gosh darn it – there are just so many errors to make!
It’s impossible to root out every error, but one must try. Andy’s Writing Tips proffers the following advice: first, leave some time between writing and submitting, as long as is practically possible (though in an exam, that isn’t much), and read it through twice if you can – once for sense and once for technical problems. Second, be aware of the errors you’re prone to make. Once you know you’re liable to make them, they’ll be easier to spot.
In the spirit of openness and self-improvement, then, I will share some of the errors I’ve had to correct in my own writing over the past week or so, not all of them, alas, noticed before pressing the ‘publish’ button:
- Miss out very small words, especially ‘is’. When I scan my work, it’s bigger and more meaningful words that I’m looking for; because ‘is’ just doesn’t seem as important, it is easy to skip over. But if I don’t want to sound like I’m speaking pidgin English, ‘is’ is very important.
- Little words substitute for each other – e.g. I write ‘in’ for ‘it’ or ‘is’. Easy to gloss over for the same reason as the above error, but how does it happen in the first place? The ‘t’, ‘s’ and ‘n’ keys are nowhere near each other on the keyboard. Mysterious.
- I change a sentence and leave words from the one I’ve replaced. For example, The vocabulary too will is pitched at a level that will stretch younger readers. What happened there? I was going to write ‘The vocabulary will stretch younger readers’ and changed my mind, but left the ‘will’ hanging about without a date at the prom. How cruel of me.
- I write it’s for its and your for you’re. Yes, this still happens sometimes – homophone errors are pernicious alright, something to do with the way we ‘hear’ what we’re writing more than we ‘see’ it. I blame my teachers for not beating these errors out of me in childhood. Strangely, I never mix up ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ – and the scars on my shins will show you why!
- I just use the wrong word and it doesn’t look wrong. This week I wrote a post about parenthesis, focussing on brackets and dashes, but left the title as ‘Parenthesis: Commas vs. Dashes’. It just didn’t look wrong.
Stop! I can’t stand any more, but having written them down will, I hope, increase my awareness of my own errors, and I will more fastidiously avoid or correct them in the future. I’m taking a short break from Andy’s Writing Tips this week to do penance for my grievous mistakes, but will return next Saturday with fresh tips and a book of the week on the following Tuesday. I’m off now though – I think I’ve just spotted an Alpine accentor in my back garden.
Look through your recent work and make a list of errors that you are prone to.