Attacking the Wrong-Word Problem
Create a definite plan for carrying out your desire and begin at once, whether you’re ready or not, to put the plan into action.
This is the age of the computer. Why be concerned about choosing the right homonym or pronoun, or of figuring out which word is which? Why not just leave the task to your spell-checker and grammar-checker tools? Word checking seems to be the sort of task ideally suited to a computer. Plus, there’s always the dictionary. Many excellent dictionaries are accessible online at the click of a mouse.
If only it were that easy! In regard to depending on your computer to catch your errors, perhaps Adam Osborne said it best: “People think computers will keep them from making mistakes. They’re wrong. With computers you make mistakes faster.”
What Your Spell-Checker Won’t Tell You
A spell-checker is superb at doing what it was designed to do—alert you to misspelled words and suggest corrections. What a spell-checker won’t do, however, is alert you to a perfectly spelled word that is the wrong word. Spell-checkers are not designed to pay attention to word meanings. Even if the wrong word is the result of a typo, it won’t fall under a spell-checker’s scrutiny if it is spelled correctly.
Although spell-checkers catch spelling errors, they can cause wrong-word errors, according to Professor Andrea A. Lunsford of Stanford University:
But every blessing brings its own curse. In this case, many of the wrong-word errors appear to be the result of spell-checker suggestions. A student trying to spell “frantic,” for example, apparently accepted the spell-checker’s suggestion of “fanatic.” Wrong word for sure.
What Your Grammar Checker Won’t Tell You
Grammar checkers claim that they spot mistakes in word usage. They do—sometimes. That is the problem. Grammar checkers are inconsistent. They may catch a misused word one time and completely miss the same error another time. A second problem with grammar checkers is that even when they point out a “wrong word,” you still need to check it by looking up the word and its alternates and then deciding on the correct word choice. Another problem with grammar checkers is that the “possible wrong words” they do catch are often correct. You need to be wary of being intimidated by grammar-checker queries and changing a right word to a wrong word.
The following sentences illustrate the folly of relying on a grammar checker to catch all word-choice errors. The passage was checked by a widely used grammar-check program. It contains twelve word-choice blunders. How many did the grammar-checker catch? None. (See the corrected paragraph on page 186.)
If you’re thinking you can rely on a spell-checker or grammar-check program too error-proof you’re manuscript or even to site your principle or every day errors in usage, let me insure you, your sadly mistaken. You need to quantify that belief or leave it go. Will such programs tell you, i.e., weather to use I or me after the proposition with?
What About Dictionaries?
Dictionaries are the ultimate authorities on word meaning and usage. There are even wrong-word dictionaries and dictionaries of commonly confused words that can be accessed online. So why not look up any suspect word in a dictionary? A dictionary is the key to choosing the right word every time. Right? Not entirely.
Here is the dilemma. A dictionary is only helpful if you consult it. But will you consult it? Not unless you suspect that a word you wrote—or are about to write—is the wrong word. How can you overcome this dilemma?
Train Your Inner Editor
Armed with your computerized editing programs and dictionary, it would seem that you are well prepared for any wrong-word encounter. To a certain extent, you are. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can type on with reckless abandon, confident that you are safe from making a word blunder. Remember, grammar checkers don’t catch all errors. Along with spell-checkers, they can even lure you into replacing a right word with a wrong one. Dictionaries provide solutions to word-choice problems, but they don’t diagnose them. By all means, use computerized editing programs to check your writing every time you write for someone else’s eyes. If you find a problem word, look it up. But be aware that in this age of computer-assisted writing, the world’s best editor is still the one that resides in your head. You must be able to trust your inner editor. Therefore, train your inner editor. Train it—and use it.
You can train yourself to be a better editor. You can become proficient at avoiding, spotting, and correcting wrong-word problems. The first step is to familiarize yourself with the words that are most likely to cause problems—the words most commonly confused. The dictionary of commonly confused words that makes up chapter 3 is ideal for doing this.