I should be taking off from the Memphis airport, headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, about now. Instead, I'm sitting by the phone, waiting for a medical report that could drastically change every plan I've made for the rest of the year. (No, I'm not the patient; it's a close family member, and not bloggable beyond that.) To control the panic and nervous energy, I'm working on my proposed book about self-publishing. So, as I fill in the gaps in the manuscript, you'll be seeing some new writing articles here. This is the first one, which goes into the chapter on editing.
Studies have demonstrated that most people look at the line above and have no trouble reading it as “Can you read this.” Experts think that our minds are conditioned to switch the letters around until they form a recognizable word. That may be so, but fussy folks (like English teachers and other literary types) expect a writer to be able to spell. Nothing will get your manuscript tossed into the trash can more quickly than having misspelled words — especially if one of then happens to be the name of the agent or publisher you are trying to woo. I really worry about today’s teenagers who have grown up knowing how 2 txt w/ as few ltrs as psbl. We may have raised a whole generation of unemployable illiterates.
Grammar books will offer all sorts of rules, some of which I know you've heard.
• "I before E except after C." This one works sometimes, but it doesn't apply if the word is pronounced with an AY, (neighbor, vein) and there are other inexplicable exceptions (either, foreign).
• "To add an ending to a word that ends with a silent E, drop the E before adding an ending that begins with a vowel, (curve becomes curving), and keep the E if the ending begins with a consonant (true becomes truly)." But of course there are exceptions, such as mileage and judgment.
• "When you add an ending to a word that ends with Y, change the Y to I and then add the ending (worry becomes worries). But the rule does not apply to adding -ING (worrying) or when the Y is preceded by a vowel (saying).
• Do you want to talk about doubling final consonants? I don't even want to try this one. The answer is you do and you don't, depending on the number of syllables in the word and the placement of the accent. Don't ask. Look it up.
Now, it would be nice if I could offer you some easy rules, comparable to the comma rule, to get you past this problem. Surely phonics instructors and Sesame Street taught us how to pronounce our letters. But the English language, being terribly English at times, does not lend itself to rules. Do you doubt that? Then think of these words and say them out loud: although, through, cough, rough, drought, dough, ought. Tell me now, how do you pronounce the following letter combination: OUGH ?
Here are the only rules I think you can trust.
• Use a spell-checker constantly, but don’t rely on it to catch every spelling error. It won’t catch the difference between too, to, and two, for example, or any other pair of words that sound alike.
• Buy a good (new!) dictionary and check it whenever you are in doubt. Remember that the meanings of words change over time, old words become obsolete, and new ideas and new technologies spawn whole new vocabularies.
• Don’t try to sound sophisticated by using English spelling for words like centre or colour. They just make you sound like you made a wrong turn somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. (But if your publishing company happens to be located in England, all bets are off.)