Grammar Wars II – The Editor Strikes Back

Grammar Wars II – The Editor Strikes Back

Last week’s Grammar Wars post was extremely popular amongst old and new readers. Yet it wasn’t free of problems, revealing a couple of other points worth exploring. Plus, the obvious sequel title was just too tempting.

“Ern” left a comment on the original article pointing out a mistake so basic I was cringing as I read it.

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is still the most popular handbook for students and writer’s alike…

“Writers” not “writer’s” 😛

Sure enough, the copy revealed a misplaced apostrophe — one of my pet peeves and with distinct ramifications for the clarity of the sentence. Before you race back to the page to gloat, it has now been corrected.

Another error, also missed by a number of people, was the confusion of ‘a’ and ‘an’ in a comment I wrote discussing the correct choice of indefinite article to precede ‘university’. Again, I’ve now corrected this after another reader caught the mistake.

What is interesting is that I had reviewed and proofread the post a number of times. Yet I am not alone. Other writers and bloggers with the same fanaticism for grammar as me also failed to pick up the mistake.

So why did we all miss it, only for the mistake to be pointed out nearly two days after the post went live?

Cleverer Than We Think

When reading, our brains are not just engaging the language skills we have learnt over time. Comprehension is also influenced by experience and expectation. For example, often a reader can predict the remaining words in a sentence before the eye has a chance to scan them. This is similar to the annoying tendency some people have to finish other people’s sentences for them in conversation. This is another of my bad habits.

Our brains draw on memories, experience and the rules of language to fill in the gaps, often faster than it takes to say or read the words naturally.This means our brain auto-corrects the grammar whilst reading.

Auto-correction makes my job as a writer even harder as I cannot be guaranteed to catch all my errors.

Whereas some would argue that this ability of readers to self-correct negates the need for perfect grammar, the opposite is actually the case.

For example, the sentence discussed above was relatively harmless – despite being completely infuriating to appear in an article on grammar. The risk of misunderstanding was minor, which led to the auto-correction. It was impossible to reread the sentence under the belief I was talking about a writer in the possessive sense, as that makes no sense.

But many grammatical errors do confuse meaning and can dramatically change how the sentence is interpreted.

Proofreading Tips

This sorry tale illustrates how proofreading is not necessarily fool proof. But there are ways to improve your chances of catching all errors.

First, don’t proofread immediately after writing the post. Where possible, I like to leave an article or post for a day before returning to rewrite. By disconnecting myself from the article for a period, I can return with a fresher eye. The longer I stay away, the more I reduce the mingling of the words on the page with the memory of my thoughts when I wrote them.

This is still not perfect as demonstrated by the original article which went through this one-day editing process.

Second, where possible, I ask someone else to read the piece for me. An independent reader is less biased towards my creative process and is informed purely by the words on the page. But, as illustrated above, even this is not fool proof.

Third, the grammar checker in MS Word can highlight obvious mistakes. Again, this is only a guide as MS Word cannot correctly interpret all grammatical scenarios and is blind to homonyms. If you find that you use MS Word too frequently for grammar checks, make sure it isn’t making you lazy. Question every change it suggests and make sure you agree with the suggestions before actioning them. I have often denied an MS Word grammatical change as the software has failed to correctly identify the structure of a more complex sentence.

The Pressures of Time

Sometimes, particularly in blogging, we are motivated to put posts live as soon as possible. Deadlines can pull our work from our hands before we are ready to let go. Therefore, proofreading becomes a compromise between you and the time you have available.

If you don’t have time for adequate proofreading, be prepared to live with some mistakes.

There is not a writer alive or dead that has not seen a grammatical error slip through to the published page. Shakespeare regularly flouted grammatical convention. Tennyson famously added misguided apostrophes into Charge of the Light Brigade, since when it has been reprinted many times with or without the offending punctuation.

Their’s not to reason why,/ Their’s but to do and die

So can we ever hope for perfect grammar? Are we fighting a never-ending battle with ourselves where each one of us has a particular Achilles heel to continually frustrate us? (For me, ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ plagued me for years.)

Even with proofreading and MS Word grammar checks and a desk full of usage guides, grammatical abominations can slip through. Beware your internal reader, auto-correcting your mistakes, and never lower your guard. Grammar can trick even the best of us. No one is immune.

Comments

  1. Pah! I chortle at your its – it’s Achilles heel. When my mother dunked me in the Styx, she held on in two spots:
    affect – effect
    and much worse…
    lie, lay, and all the tense variations
    It’s enough to make a grown man cry sometimes. I’d go lie down, but I’m not sure I shouldn’t have lain down. Or laid down. Or…oh bother.

  2. Just found this post through stumble.
    Love your blog, friend. Great advice. I have Stunk and white beside my desktop. Well done. Be back soon.

  3. Jobonekenobi says

    Phew, I’ve found an outlet where the beauty of grammar is applauded.
    Your/you’re is a pet dislike. It feels like someone has stepped on my foot.
    As a long-term student of German, I used to believe and staunchly uphold that grammar defined usage. However, I have become more laid-back and realised that usage defines grammar (within boundaries) as this is the nature of evolution. And this is the beauty of language.