Saturday, November 17, 2012

Spell Check is Your Friend...Sort Of (Word Usage 1)

Sorry, yes this is a rant. And no, despite the title, my rant isn't really about spelling. Not exactly.

Maybe I'm super-sensitive to the issue. I was, after all, raised by an English teacher or two. I'm not perfect either. I'm sure if you dredge the waters of my blog you might find a spelling or grammar mistake here and there that I haven't found and corrected yet.

But hey, this is a blog. In a published novel on the other hand...argh!

Most word processing programs come with an automatic spell check. These days, most email programs do too. Guess what? If you don't have spell check on, then you probably had to go to the trouble of figuring out how to turn it off! What's with that? When you see those nasty little red lines under your word, it's probably not spelled right. Take a moment to correct it.

Editors and agents are busy people. If they see a query letter or manuscript that's full of glaring errors, they'll think you're a sloppy writer and may even reject you out of hand. No matter how beautiful your writing might be otherwise.

As Janet Reid says on her excellent blog, the Query Shark, "when it's clear you didn't run spell check on your query, you contribute to global warming because it makes sharks weep hot salty tears." 

Spell Czech Can't Do it All

But spelling isn't the one that really gets me. And here's where spell check fails. What makes me crazy as a reader, is where the writer obviously doesn't have enough command of the English language to know when they're using the wrong word.

As writers, words are our tools. If we don't know how to use them correctly and with power, then we're like a carpenter trying to hammer a screw.

Someday they'll invent a program that checks word usage. Until then:

Those Nasty Homophones

The English language is so (not sew or sow) full of homophones that they trip folks up on a regular basis. Homophones are words that sound the same but mean different things. Below are some of the ones I come across far too often. How they came about would make an interesting history lesson. My guess would be cultural clash. Maybe the Angles had one word and the Saxons another and the Celts a third.


There is a place. They're means, "they are". Their means, "belonging to them".


Your means it's something you own. You're means, "you are".

When you see an apostrophe in the middle of the word (and yes, sometimes at the beginning or end of a word) it often means that two words have been squashed together. So if you come across an apostrophe, the rule of thumb is to ask yourself what two words have been stuck together. (Unless we're talking about a person's (or group/item's) name, in which case you're looking at a possessive. For example "Sheila’s" means, "belonging to Sheila.")

Just for fun, I should mention that contractions often come from the days of yore when folks spoke, it seems, in longer sentences.


And I won't mention two. (Oops, too late!) 

In front of a noun, to is a direction. "I'm going to the store." It's called an "preposition" in that case. (Which is one of those words you learn in third grade and then promptly forget the meaning of. I had to look it up. Basically a preposition is about spatial or temporal relationships. One item might be on, under, or inside another, for instance. On the temporal side, we might say that, "SINCE you're reading this you might have had questions about what the heck a preposition was BEFORE you found my rant.")

In front of a verb, to denotes an "infinitive". That one is so complex I won't even try to define it. I'll let someone else do so. Here's the short version for our needs. If you're using it in front of a verb, such as, "is there anything to eat in the fridge?" you want "to" with just one O.

Too means either "also" or "an excess." Do grammar mistakes drive you batty too? I saw too many in the last book I was reading, which is why I'm writing this rant.


Rain falls from the sky. A queen reigns. You guide a horse with reins.


You walk down the aisle, and get deserted on an isle.


You bare your soul or your body. You bear a burden. And if you run into a bear in the woods, you probably won't be worrying about where it poops.


You brake a car. You break your arm or a vow.


You buy things at the store. You pass by the roses and hopefully stop to gather them (while ye may). You say, "bye" to your friend when you leave. (Incidentally, "bye" is a further reduced contraction of good bye - without an apostrophe, dang it! - for "God be with ye.")


If something has a hole in it, then it's not whole.


If you fall down the stair because you were staring at a book you were reading, you might break your arm. Or at least your concentration.


You steal glances. Or hearts. Hopefully not the silverware. Swords are made of steel. (Though bronze is also an option, but not nearly as strong. Which is why the faeries (Celts) who only had bronze swords don't like cold iron.)


If your hero is admiring your protagonist's narrow waste, then he's not looking at her sexy body. She may have more problems in regard to him than just their tumultuous relationship. And you might have a challenge selling your novel, since coprophilia isn't something the average reader wants to read about.


If you think YOU don't want to confuse these, you really don't want your large dogs to. Boarders are the people who pay for "room and board (food)" at your home. Borders are the boundaries of something. If you want your dogs to patrol the borders of your land and they instead attack your boarders, you might be looking at the end of your income, not to mention a lawsuit.


Threw is the past tense of "throw" as in pitching a ball. Or a hammer. Or tossing a book across the room because the author doesn't understand simple English. Through means to pass into and beyond something. "I went through the wormhole," or "I made it through algebra."

We pass through the looking glass, and if Alice had a lick of sense she might have threw (though here the verb tense should be "have thrown") a croquet mallet at the Queen of Hearts' head.

"Through someone for a loop," is not only incorrect English, it's a cliché, and should be avoided at "all costs."


I have no clue why, but I've come across this mistake in all but one of the romance novels I've read in the past few months, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to rant about it.

Past means "before now." Passed means to move by something. So your heroine doesn't cogitate on passed memories, nor can she past one door and choose another. Just to confuse things, she could walk past someone in the ballroom. Time passes, not pasts. If she's thinking of her dead uncle, he's passed, not past. Unless, of course he was married to her aunt and they got a divorce. In which case, try "former uncle" for the sake of clarity. (Ack! It's a mess, I know!) Here's an excellent article on the correct usage of past/passed.

Now you have the right to write however you desire. But if your words don't soar across the page without tripping the agent or editor's eye with incorrect usage, don't get sore when they send you a form rejection. After all, they have other books to read, and don't have time to waste (not waist).

There's more to my rant, but for now I need a break, so I'll put on the brakes and resume later.