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So I finally remembered I had this thing, and I reread my third post – and corrected two spelling errors.  Exhaustion and carelessness are no doubt at fault.  Mostly carelessness.

Spelling is a tricky one.  We have all these wonderful programs to check it for us: most browsers have built-in spellcheckers, as do most text editors.  But these programs are stupid.  People are smart.  The program doesn’t know when you use “wont” what you really mean is “won’t” – both are words in English, correctly spelled.  But they don’t mean anything close to the same thing, and they’re not even the same part of speech.  Sometimes the grammar check will catch that, but very rarely.

Instead of relying on these programs for all your error-checking, make sure you reread what you post – and reread it out loud – because that’s one of the fastest, easiest ways to catch embarrassing mistakes of omission or word choice.  If something sounds wrong, it probably is wrong – if it looks wrong, why did you write it in the first place?

This is much harder, of course, for non-native English speakers.  Which is why reading and listening to media of the language you’re trying to write is such a common suggestion for improving vocabulary.  It also helps you improve grammar, giving you a feel for the language.

Be wary of some media, though.  Songs are not known for good grammar, and poems use much more flexible rules.  Listen and read the kind of thing you want to produce: a lawyer should read legal briefs and legal commentary, a sports journalist should read sports blogs.  This is sound advice for anyone, native English speaker or otherwise.

In summary: consume the media you want to create, and read out loud to check your work.  Reading aloud forces you to concentrate more on the words, whereas reading silently allows you to skim over everything quickly and miss glaring errors.

This week I’m in Florida, visiting a few papers and the Poynter Institute.  I apologize for the long delay in posts.  I haven’t had nearly as many copy shifts as I would like, and that means not nearly as many opportunities to correct the wrongs of the world.

Grammatical wrongs, that is.  My ambitions are fairly small.

It was actually at the Poynter Institute that I was reminded of one of the most common errors of written English: your and you’re.

Admittedly, the instructor used “you’re” correctly once, and then incorrectly not a paragraph later, which tells me this was a problem of hurried writing rather than actual failure of usage.  But it should serve as a reminder that even people with very great mastery of language can make these mistakes.

On to the Word!

“Your” is a second-person possessive pronoun.  If you can replace it with “my,” “our” (both first-person possessive), “their,” “his,” or “her” (all third-person possessive) and have a grammatically correct sentence, then “your” is used correctly.

Your letter was fun to read!

can be correctly rewritten as His letter was fun to read! “Their,” “her,” “our,” or “my” can also be used in place of “your.”

“You’re” is a contraction of “you” (again, a second-person pronoun) and “are” (a plural to be verb)  If it can be replaced by “we’re,” “I’m,” (first-person pronouns, contracted with to be verbs that agree with them) “they’re,” “he’s,” or “she’s” (third-person pronouns and agreeing to be verbs), then the usage is correct.

You’re starting to get on my last nerve with this pronoun business.

can be successfully rewritten as She’s starting to get on my last nerve with this pronoun business.

Questions or comments?  Leave a reply 🙂

This is our first grammatical note, and it’s on a particular aspect of quotation punctuation that a lot of people never seem to grasp: quote punctuation.  This includes end-of-quote punctuation, the punctuation of grammatical structures existing around the quotation, and where the close-quote goes when these things occur.

There are always exceptions, of course – this is English we’re talking about.  But the fast and loose rule is punctuation goes inside the quote unless there is an outstanding reason to put it outside the quote.

For attribution sentences:

 He said, “I’m going.”

She frowned.  “Well, I’m going too!” she exclaimed.

“Don’t you have something better to do?” he asked, irritated.

“No,” she said stubbornly, “and you’ll just get yourself in trouble if I don’t come along.”

For titles and other quoted objects:

I can’t wait to read Poe’s “Annabelle Lee.”

I liked “The Peaks of Otter,” “The Long Black Line,” and “Witch Doctor” the best off the mixed CD you gave me.

Questions or comments?  Leave a reply. 🙂

My name is Rachel and I copy edit for my university’s student paper.  I’ve been copy editing for more than a year and I keep seeing the same mistakes – in the articles, on the Internet, and in academic papers.  This blog is a place for me to post whatever word got mangled most recently, along with the best explanation I can give for correct usage.  I’m trying to be gentle here because I work with a lot of non-native English speakers.

Some of the words actually won’t be English.  I took five years of Japanese language and though there are two different spelling conventions for transliteration into English, and I’ll provide both, sometimes these are the words that stick out to me.

Today’s Word is actually three words: peek, peak, and pique.  All three are verbs and nouns.  The simplified, most common definitions are as follows:

Peek means “to look” as a verb and is “a look” as a noun. 

Peak means “to attain a height of activity” as a verb and is “a mountain-top” or “the crest of something” (a wave, etc.) as a noun.

Pique means “to arouse or excite” as a verb and is “a feeling or fit of irritation or anger” as a noun.  The verb form originally meant to arouse anger, but now can be used with curiosity, excitement, etc.  “A fit of pique” is redundant, but unfortunately common use.

Questions or comments?  Leave a reply. 🙂