Charles Moore, Community Voices

Charles Moore

I was informed of a serious spelling error in my last article. Only one? I checked the file and found my goof had not been red-underlined. I suspect I approved of the spelling without paying attention to it.

Spelling errors are rife sometimes. It isn’t that writers can’t spell, it is just that for the volume of work out there mistakes get made. Most of us don’t enjoy the luxury of a staff of editors and proofreaders to cover our tracks. What happens many times is the writer gets on a tear and words flow out. You ignore the red-line and keep going with the thought. Most of the time zooming past highlights is not dangerous.

At one level we are blessed with built-in dictionaries in our word processors. At another level we are cursed by built-in dictionaries that are a bit too helpful. Spelling, like any other skill, requires constant exercise.

I have made a few typos/spelling errors in these columns. Before I get kicked off I will probably make a few more. Seems to me if you write enough words you are bound to have something slip through. There is someplace in the world a writer who never, ever makes a mistake.

I was reminded a few years ago that I had accused Sir Paul McCartney of playing “bass cleft.” If you pause for the slightest moment to know what the mistake is, then we are in the same boat. I am reminded, too, of a story from a friend who teaches composition. In this case the villain was the auto-correct feature instead of spell-check. Auto-correct is one of those gadgets that ought to be excised from word processing. It makes for lazy writing and potentially wild mistakes. In this case, the student was writing about “deficit spending.” For reasons known only to the computer, auto-correct substituted “deficit” with “defecate.” It’s not funny.

A bad habit is to quickly scan for potential errors highlighted on the screen. You assume the rest of the text is clear. Proofing is not any easier than writing. However, experience dictates proofreading your own work is really asking for trouble.

Back in my dark past, just out of high school, I was lucky enough to work at the state geological survey headquarters. One of my few duties was to proofread their monthly journal. Lots of big words. There were two of us on this assignment and our instructions were to read it backwards. Not left-right, top-to-bottom, but right-left, bottom-to-top! Including punctuation.

I tend to rely on my spell checker. It’s old, but for the most part the words I want to use haven’t changed in the past 100 years. My ability to spell is what has changed. Giving credit where credit is due, the good, online, computerized dictionary has this wonderful feature that allows constant updates. For some writers that would be a blessing. We add words to the lexicon by the dozens, but most of us do not hazard those waters not for fear of misspelling but to avoid pretending to be hip. Being hip when you’re over 65 isn’t quite the same as being hip when you were 25.

That the language is alive and moving is probably a good sign. If not we’d still be using “ff” for “ss.” Spelling is the mutual agreement of how to present a word in text and that agreement evolves because we evolve. Political correctness is not a sin. The newer trend towards unnecessary gender-driven pronouns will cause some confusion for a while. I am not sure how this new trend is going to fly.

Habits and age (my excuse) play all kinds of tricks. A few years ago I read “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles. In writing up a short review I discovered my own onboard auto-incorrect feature. I wanted to write “peach” instead of “peace.” To this day I have to pause before writing “peace.” I suppose it can only get worse.

I have noticed, too, a variation between dictionaries depending upon the application. Software companies have to buy dictionaries. That means sometimes price makes a difference in quality. If you can go to the bookstore and browse different dictionaries all supposedly with the same words and find yourself less impressed with some dictionaries, your computerized dictionary is not necessarily any better.

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