More of a guideline than a rule…

Firstly, I would like to caveat this entire blog with Muphry’s law, which is an adage that states: “If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.” *

Incorrect grammar and in particular poor spelling can make a huge difference in the professional world, especially on a CV or job application; it is not uncommon for an applicant to be dismissed without further consideration for such misdemeanours. Even with automated spell-check it is always a good idea to re-read anything you write, or ask someone to proofread it for you. We all have times when something doesn’t look quite right or certain words consistently trip us up, so let’s look at some of the most common spelling errors and how to avoid them.

‘Misspelling’ is by far the most embarrassing to get wrong, though ‘embarrassing’ itself can be a tricky one! ‘Mis-’ is a prefix that means badly or wrongly and when added to the verb ‘spell’ it refers to a word incorrectly spelled, or is it spelt, agh…! In the USA they only use ‘spelled’, but everywhere else both are acceptable.  Interestingly my spell-check would prefer me to write ‘spelt’, but that usually makes me peckish!  If you are ever unsure how to spell ‘misspelling’, just remember that you wouldn’t remove the ‘u’ from ‘understand’ to make ‘misunderstand’, so don’t remove the ‘s’ from ‘spell’.

Apparently ‘accommodate’ is another one that frequently causes confusion. Other than simple repetition there are a few clever ways to remember it,  for example “twice the comfort”, or my favourite “ac (air-con) is common in hotel rooms”. However, don’t assume words with a similar appearance will follow a similar pattern for instance ‘recommend’, although comparable, simply translates as to ‘commend’ something again, using the prefix ‘re-’ to indicate it has occurred again!  Ah, and there is another one! ‘Occur’ becomes ‘occurred’ in the past tense and similarly ‘refer’ becomes ‘referred’, but be careful, this has more to do with the stress on the ‘r’ in a two-syllable word rather than a definitive rule, for example ‘repair’ becomes ‘repaired’ and ‘number’ becomes ‘numbered’.

So, is it the rules that cause the problems? Did you know nearly every single English grammar rule has exceptions?  The most widely (un)appreciated being the “i before e except after c” rule.  I always remember failing a spelling test as a child for following this advice and incorrectly spelling ‘height’ and ‘weight’. However, the next line of the rhyme “…or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbour and weigh” may have helped me, but it is still misleading.  One of the most commonly-used words that fails to follow this rule is ‘receive’, so perhaps all you need to remind yourself is ‘I received misleading guidance at school’. An entertaining exception to another rule is ‘publicly’, usually when an adjective ends in ‘-ic’, you form the adverb by adding ‘ally’, ironically the only one that “does not include al(l)” is public!

Mnemonics (amusingly rather difficult to spell) are often used to assist, though sometimes they can be more difficult to remember than the actual word. My son is fond of ‘Big elephants can always understand small elephants’ as a mnemonic for ‘because’, but it always trips me up; I remember the ‘always’ and ‘understand’ part but generally forget the rest.  Many types of mnemonic exist and different ones work well for different people, for example for the word ‘separate’ do you prefer “the r separates 2 a’s” or does the mental picture of ‘separate parasites’ strike a more memorable chord?  With ‘definitely’, do you think “I have definitely got it right”, or just know it’s ‘finite’?  ‘Parallel’ lends itself beautifully to its meaning as it contains two l’s that form parallel lines, and ‘calendar’, rather than ‘calender’ is simple when you realise there are no months that begin with an ‘e’ or that calendars are full of days.

The most simple and obvious mistakes are sometimes the hardest to spot.  Personally I have to remind myself “a car is to ‘stationary’, as a pen is to ‘stationery’” as it usually catches me out.  An automated spell-checker recognises (or ‘recognizes’ as my computer would prefer) both words and therefore doesn’t correct the spelling, but it can’t always detect if it isn’t appropriate to the sentence or, more frequently, the continent.  For example in British English ‘practice’ and ‘licence’ are spelled with a ‘c’  when it’s a noun, and ‘s’ when it’s a verb, but in American English they would only ever use ‘practice’.  Another common continental-based issue, especially for spell-check, is ‘programme’. In the UK we usually use ‘programme’, whereas American English tends to use ‘program’, except for a computer program which is the same in both.  A handy guide is to remember “you programme a program”, but it can still send your spell-check into a spin.   Regardless of continent, spell-checks are no substitute for knowledge and attention to detail, as the dreaded homophone will always be their too catch you out and there is no explaining the ridiculous nature of the text message autocorrect – I’m sure my phone does it on porpoise!!

We all make mistakes, but as a copy editor, proofreader or indexer, if you make a mistake it could be far more serious than a simple spelling mistake.  Your duty of care to your clients means that they could have a claim of damages against you if you have made a mistake that has a financial impact on them. Even if such a claim is successfully defended the associated legal costs can be extremely high.

Professional Indemnity insurance (known as errors and omissions insurance in the US) protects these service-providers against damages awarded by the courts in any negligence claims made by a client and the legal costs associated in defending such a claim.  Well worth the piece of mind!!

* The name is a deliberate misspelling of “Murphy’s law”!!