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The Round and the Furry – When Good Letters Go Bad.

“My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles,
and the letters get in the wrong places.”
…A.A.Milne

Scribe smallA fragile day, today – last week still weighs heavily – and I was tempted to throw the corner open to you readers in a sort of Q & A: you ask me your most pressing editing questions and I provide pithy bon mots in return. However, the writer in me seems to have a hard time settling for such a terse exposition.

So, a story.

When I was a kid, I was a notoriously bad speller. Oh, I could memorize word lists for tests, but back when I was nine, the rules and vagaries of English spelling seemed as nonsensical as a Hatter’s high tea. As much as I loved roaming through dictionaries, etymology was an undiscovered country to this youthful traveler, one I didn’t knowingly explore for a few years yet. (A failing of our education system, perhaps, to rely on rote rather than reason.)

spell-check-fail1

Fast forward several decades – irony running ahead of the wind – and I now help fill the household coffers by editing crossword puzzles. (I can think of a few teachers laughing their asses off over that!) I have taken advantage of time and experience and am a better, if somewhat indifferent, speller. I am also an occasionally errant typist, prey to dyslexic fingers and fur-laced keyboards. (Thank you, kids!)

sanji

This does not even begin to touch on the unexplained mystery of the eye/brain connection which leads us to see words as we expect them to be, not necessarily as they are. I find this most true when proofing my own work; I know the words inside and out and so my mind fills in blanks, automatically switches inverted letters, and glides over –ance when it should be –ence, because, well, the mind is funny that way.

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Since nothing screams “Unprofessional!” like a text littered with typos and orthographic errors, the writing gods put their heads together and gifted us poor scriveners with spellcheck. Voila! Proofreading for dummies! All those pesky blunders red-lined and auto-corrected. Nothing could be simpler.

Except of course, nothing is ever that simple.

First, the standard spellcheck database is  limited. This leads to erroneous markups or, conversely, if your spelling is truly atrocious, letter-salad flagged, but scant help provided re alternatives. In other words, you’re on your own. (Most word-processing dictionaries can be expanded – something which, as a fantasist, I do frequently, especially with esoterica and exotic names, so easy to make up but not always to remember. But, damn it Jim! We’re writers not lexicographers!)

spelling-crop

More troublesome for some – and not really the fault of the program – is the fact that English is a whimsical language, rife with homonyms and frequently confused/misused words, for which spellcheck simply doesn’t suffice.

their/there/they’re
ade/aid/aide
who’s/whose
its/it’s
then/than
vane/vein/vain
alter/altar
affect/effect
bare/bear
discreet/discrete
sheer/shear
rain/rein/reign
council/counsel
rout/route/root
plane/plain
loathe/loath
grisly/grizzly
advice/advise
device/devise
being/been
led/lead
sear/seer
bread/bred
desert/dessert

The list goes on and on….

So what do you do when “I rote a tail about a plain full of grisly bares en root to the dessert” passes through spellcheck with flying colors?

You beet your Brest, pull your hare (but not by his ears), and remember that computers are only tulles.

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Tools work best when we users knows our craft. And the best tools are always in our heads. Read your work slowly and with care. Don’t hesitate to drag out your dictionary, handy grammar guide, even a knowledgeable friend or two, if you are stuck. This is the picky-nit part of writing. Love it, hate it, but do it diligently, starting with the a spellcheck from top to bottom, front to back. For, despite flaws in the system, it is still a great proofing aid. Then, if you can, find fresh eyes to read your work through again. And again….

Next week I am going to do that Editor’s Corner Q & A. I’ll be on line all next Tuesday, so drop by. Ask me your questions, I’ll tell ewe no lyes. Oops!

If you have missed any past editions of Editor’s Corner, they are easily accessible at the Editor’s Corner Archive.

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