Friday, August 24, 2007

Spelling, Words Carefully Chosen, and the Errors That Irk Us

from Jacqueline

I am usually fairly good when it comes to spelling, but like everyone else, I make mistakes. I always run the spell-check, because I write for publication in both British-English and American English and sometimes get my s’s and z’s muddled up, and I also slide in the odd programme when I mean program, and colour when I mean color, or vice versa. I hate making mistakes, and try not to be irked when I see others making mistakes in print, whether it be in the actual spelling of a word, in a word out of context, a malapropism or, in an historical novel, a word used that wasn’t invented at the time in which the novel is set. So I could perfectly understand being corrected last week when I spelled “umbrage” incorrectly – thank you, Allie. (I’m also a bit old-fashioned, so I tend to use “an” before historical, hotel, herb, horrific ... apparently that rule is way out of fashion now).

I have some pet peeves of my own. Whenever I hear or read that someone is “chomping at the bit” I want to say, “Champing. It’s champing.” Horses do not eat their bits, they champ, which means a constant gnawing in anticipation of moving. Of course, a purist will tell you that once upon a time, the words had a similar meaning, and in truth they do today – but the word here is champing.

Humble pie is another. The word should be “umble” because the pie in question was made of what was known as “umble” – traditionally the offal from a deer. It was meal made by poorer people, because it was cheap. You would have to eat umble pie or go hungry if, for example, you had lost your money in a wager. Also, in days of yore, it wasn’t only people from London who dropped their “h’s” – even Queen Elizabeth 1st dropped her h’s because that’s the way people spoke then, so eating umble pie, meaning to come down in the world, became mixed up with umble as in humble. But if we are to join those purists, the saying should be that one eats umble pie when brought down a peg or two. By the way, anyone remember these guys?

Humble Pie.

Just recently, reading a novel by a very well known writer who shall remain nameless, in dialogue she described a person’s teenage habits. The book was set in 1915, and the world did not have teenagers until the 1950’s. It’s a relatively new word. And though it was a small error, it put me off the book. Now I know how people feel when they think I’ve made an error in my books – however, I can safely say that most of the time I have an explanation. And if it's an error of language or research on my part, I try to put it right, but you can't always do that when the book's published. (By the way, you would not believe how many people tell me that the word “smog” was invented in Los Angeles in the 1950’s. Sorry – it was London in 1904 at a conference on public health. The “noxious blend of smoke and fog” was described as smog and the word quickly became part of the lexicon, with the particularly nasty smogs continuing to be referred to as pea-soupers).

When I was training to be a teacher – and that really was in days of yore – there was a trend towards completely ignoring issues such as spelling and grammar, and allowing the creative waters to run in the children without them having to be concerned about anything but the story – and that makes sense, to some extent. My approach was to allow the kids to run wild in their stories, encourage them to use new words, to congratulate and support enthusiastic and imaginative storytelling, but to draw attention to some of the words that needed a bit of assistance from the dictionary. I remember when I was at college, I wrote to my mother and happened to tell her that I had been to a certain play and it was mesmerizing. Generally, her letters to me were few and far between, after all, not only was she working hard at the time, but we also spoke on the ‘phone once a week. However, I received a letter almost by return letting me know that I had spelled “mesmerize” incorrectly. And as far as she’s concerned, it’s wrong today in this post, because I’m writing in American English, not British English. For my mother, reading in England, it should be mesmerise, with an “s.” And I could go on about how the punctuation is different too, but that’s just going too far. By the way, when did “spelt” become “spelled?” Or is that another old-fashioned thing? Could it have been lost when those spelt loaves became a staple at Whole Foods? Or was it never correct at all?

As professional writers, our work should be polished, it should not only have the spark of creativity, but be presented to the reader without errors. Oh, I wish. I have yet to understand how a manuscript that leaves my hands with spelling corrected, and with punctuation checked, ends up with all manner of typos and other errors by the time I finally get the book in my hot little hands. One of my editors referred to this phenomenon as our sacrificial offering to the gods of perfection. Personally, I think technological advances in typesetting have a lot to answer for.

So, having given a few examples of the things that might cause a passing frisson of irk, what issues of language get under your skin, when you’re reading a book or magazine? Or when you’re in conversation? Chances are I’ve crossed someone’s line with this post – there’s a spelling, a grammatical error or an issue of style that has rattled a cage. But what, in your opinion, matters, as far as language is concerned, and what really is of no consequence at all?

And while I’m on my Friday soapbox, does anyone have an opinion on the overuse of the word “that” in American writing today? Try going through anything you write and taking out every “that” – it’s amazing how many you can do without, and how much they hamper the rhythm and flow of the language.

I may not be back at the page until much later today. I am having a tooth extracted this afternoon – a very large molar tooth. I am terrified of the dentist, that’s all I need to say. I am a wimp. I have had better Fridays.

Finally, here’s a quote attributed to the poet, Alexander Pope:

“Compose with fury and revise with phlegm.”

Hmmm, each to their own.

And thereby hangs a tale ... or is it only tails that hang?

Paul, I’m sure you have a quip about revising with phlegm ....

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  1. Wow, I think you channeled my mother. She is my grammar and punctuation editor on all my manuscripts. Your post brought a particularly robust conversation about splitting infinitives.

  2. I love the explanation of umble pie, Our J. I did not know that, and it's a great bit of trivia. I'm also glad to see "champing" championed.

    I took a "British Lit" class in ninth grade, and one of our first homework assignments was to research an Alexander Pope couplet and explain its meaning to the class. I was given "Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow/And all the rest is but leather and prunello."

  3. from Jacqueline

    Oh, Candace, I know I can probably split infinitives with the best of them! And my mother - as you probably guessed - was the spelling police in our family. When I sent her my first manuscript, she said she loved the story, but did I want her to list the errors?

    And Cornelia, thank you for the Pope quote - quite an interesting fellow, wasn't he?

  4. I didn't know about "umble pie" and am delighted to learn its origin.

    My own pet peeve is when someone decides to "hone in on" something. "Home in on," please.

    And good luck this afternoon. I join you in dentist-dread.

  5. from Jacqueline

    Thanks Louise, for homing in on the conversation, and for honing our appreciation of the language. Here's another one of that ilk: Referring to one of these * as an asterix, as opposed to asterisk. I think that French comic book character has a lot to answer for.

  6. Ooh, fun post.

    Words that bug me:

    Irregardless: it's not a word, can we please stop using it?
    Commentator (used on all the sports shows): Can't stand it - it should be "commenter" or "announcer" or "presenter".

    Other grammatical annoyances:
    Improper contractions, i.e. "does'nt" rather than the correct "doesn't"
    "Of" used incorrectly in place of "have", as in "I should OF done that". Argh.
    Incessant use of the word "like": "So I, like, went to the store, and the clerk was, like, really rude, and dude, she wouldn't wait on me for, like, hours so I got all up in her face and, like, really let her know what was up." Gak.

    (Like everyone else, love the umble pie story ;-)

  7. Enjoyed your comments, and the explanations. Champing, I knew that. Pet peeves... Misused apostrophes make me nuts!

  8. Yes, Pope was an interesting fellow but what the heck did he mean by that couplet, Miss C?

    Our J, I have no idea how you keep the English and American spellings straight. And I'll confess to being a "that" abuser. I'll try to do better from now on...if that's even possible.

  9. from Jacqueline

    Rae, I am with you on the, like, like issue. It drives me crazy. especially when I listen to young women who also have that upswing in the cadence of their conversations, as if they are asking permission to speak, or to have an opinion. When I hear kids speaking in this way, I always want to say, "Be strong! Be sure of yourself." I remember a friend's daughter telling me that something was "like, great" so I said, "Oh, it was good then - good is like "great" and so is fantastic, or terrific." It took a while ....

    Irregardless (only kidding ...) I will be checking and double-checking my punctuation, especially my apostrophes, in future.

  10. Prunello is a type of fabric. My interpretation was that you can dress a guy up, but it's only his innate worth which can give him actual manliness.

    Or something.

    Here's the definition (and I see I've slightly misremembered the original quote):


    Stuff. Prunello really means that woollen stuff of which common ecclesiastical gowns used to be made; it was also employed for the uppers of women’s boots and shoes; everlasting. A corruption of Brignoles. 1

    “Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow;
    The rest is all but leather or prunello,”

    Pope: Essay on Man, iv.

  11. Being a terrible proof-reader I cannot complain about others.

    Great, post, Jackie.


  12. Thanks, Jim! The trouble with proof-reading is that you get to the stage where you've read the manuscript so many times, you can't see the forest for the trees - that's why they have professional proof readers. And the trouble with the professionals is that even they make mistakes.

  13. Well, nonundisirregardless, I, like, found your post totally awesome, dudette!

    Suppose I should have known, but didn't, about umble pie and the champing thereof. Thank you.

    While I realize that language is organic and ever-changing, I deplore the gross shifting of meanings of perfectly good words: I can no longer say to a happy person, "Well, you're certainly gay this morning"; nor can I say to someone whose behavior is a bit bizarre, "Aren't you a bit queer today." [Sic--statement, not a question. Is that acceptable?] I suspect old Alex Pope couldn't say 'rape' today and not be misunderstood.

    I hate 'all throughout,' and commenters who say 'nuculer.' Nothing puts me off a book more than "The number is 555...," though, gratefully that's more frequent in movies and on TV. (Why 'in' movies, but 'on' TV?)

    I wonder what perxcentage of typo/grammatical errors are due to spell check--word is spelled correctly, but it's the wrong word!?

    How soon will texting and e-mail abbreviations become the norm in the written word, or emoticons, for that matter.

    But I'm rambling.

    Tom, T.O.

  14. Tom, I confess, I do miss gay being vibrant, and queer being not so well. In fact, my dad will still refer to moments of indisposition as "feeling a bit queer." My brother told him some years ago that he ought not say that any more. Sad, really, isn't it?

    As you probably know, texting is by far the most popular means of communication via mobile 'phone in the UK and Europe, so whenever I receive an email from one of my God-children, it seems composed with a stream of abbreviations - and it's not only the kids who are writing their letters in this way. The loss of language has much to answer for, because at the end of the day, language is the lynchpin that binds us. Which brings us to "stuff." I have a particular dislke of the word, "stuff." It has such a broad meaning now, as in:

    "What did you do today?"
    "What did you eat?"
    "Oh, you know - stuff."

    Infused with the odd "like" and you have a whole conversation comprised of just two key words - sad, but true.

  15. Hello Jacqueline.

    Interesting post. Since you ask, what really irks me is people who don't keep up with the language and yearn for it to be as they imagine it was at some given point in the past.


    My English teacher at grammar school would have given your post an A+. He insisted, for instance, that the only reason we say 'impractical' is because of confusion with the word 'impractical', and that we should all say 'unpractical' instead.

    After about ten years of people correcting me every time i said or wrote 'unpractical', i decided to bow to the majority and go with the flow.

    After all, what is good language other than language which allows one to be understood clearly?

    Clearly you cannot get your meaning across satisfactorily if you constantly focus your listener or reader's attention on words or grammer that they believe to be wrong. But there are limits, and i fear that if i ever said 'umble pie' instead of 'humble pie', those same 'unpractical'-correctors would be at me again!


  16. None of you mentioned something that drives me nuts which is people who don't know the difference between take and bring. New Yorkers are especially guilty of this. I guess that's why this goes noticed in writing since most editors, publishers, etc. are located in NY.
    The Queen

  17. Dear Queen,

    This is something that has irked me since I came to America, and I have even tried to get to the bottom of it - why this confusion between take and bring. I once worked for an Italian man (real Italian from Italy, not several generations removed), and he asked me to bring something to so-and-so, when the correct request would have been to take something to so-and-so. I asked him if there were different words for take and bring in Italian (I do not speak Italian), and he said that where he came from, take and bring were the same. Now, in a country such as the USA, where immigrants came - and still come - from all over the world, could such linguistic habits be the result of English translation from the early days of immigration? I do know that it really takes the biscuit!

  18. (1) Overuse of "that":

    American style manuals advise writers to use "that" in place of "which" in almost all instances, since we Yanks are apparently too stupid to understand the difference between a restrictive clause (e.g., The house that Jack built") and an unrestrictive one (e.g., "The house, which Jack built in 1934"). The ostensible excuse is that "which" is archaic, which, of course, is rank bullshit.

    Likewise, Americans have never learned to distinguish "who" from "whom", and so use "that" for both instead, especially in the lyrics of sappy popular songs (e.g., "The man that got away"/"You're the one that I want").

    And that's that.

    (2) "-ise" v. "-ize". This is more a matter of British inertia than a substantive difference between correct American and British spelling. The British insistence on "-ise" is actually in imitation of French cognates. Educated English writers from the time of Samuel Johnson have preferred the "-ize" form, and so do such thoroughly British institutions as the Oxford English Dictionary, the Times of London, and H. W. Fowler himself--except for words which even Americans spell with an "s": apprise, advertise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disenfranchise, disguise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, improvise, incise, premise, supervise, surmise, surprise.

    --Sgt. Warren of the Diction City PD

  19. What totally freaked me out lately was reading the word "ginormous" in Laurie Colwin's "Happy All The Time," which was published in 2000 (I was surprised to just now learn) but I believe the context for the word was much earlier. Still, "ginormous," in 2000? I feel like I only heard that for the first time the other day.

  20. Actually, "ginormous" is British slang, first noted by Eric Partridge in 1948.

  21. I loved this column. Just discovered it and will become a reader.

    My real pet peeve is that the word "myself" should be written out of the language. Do you realize how many times people say "myself did it".

    Microsoft Word will always correct the word "which" with "that". Another pet peeve!!!!!