Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Spleling and uasge: Ur doin it rong

"Would you rather be a good writer, or a good storyteller?"

It's a question worth pondering.  The focus of it, of course, is that when you are writing a story, writing a good story should be first and foremost.  You shouldn't be obsessing over every little thing, freaking out over whether or not you're following the "rules" that be. It bears mentioning that this question doesn't 100% translate into poetry writing; the main focus is fiction.  However, there are such things as narrative poetry, so it still kind of works. 

It's sound advice to focus on the being a storyteller rather than a writer.  When we obsess over the "rules," we are held back. So why should we be in a tizzy over spelling and usage?

Imagine that you are trying to paint a picture.  You want to paint the grass green, but instead, you grab red.  Is your picture going to accurately portray what you want it to portray? For yourself, you might think, "Meh, I know it's supposed to be grass, and you can still tell from the picture that it's the ground.  I want to focus on the meaning of the painting, not the colors exactly."

You already see where I'm going with this. Of course it's going to be a problem if your grass is red, because people might miss the overall picture because they are so busy trying to decipher just why the grass is red.  Was there a bloodbath? Is the grass on fire? Is it sunset? Is the painter just dumb?

Ouch.  That last one hurts.  Remember that some people are judgmental tools like that.  If you want them to see your painting for what it is, you should probably make sure that the grass is green. Likewise, people will have problems appreciating your writing if you don't put some effort into making sure that your spelling and usage are in order.

Now, everybody knows what spelling is. (It's using magic, right? Oh...wrong kind of spell.) But what exactly is 'usage'? (Ooh, that's a rabbit, right? Oh, wait, this is an English word, not a Japanese one.) offers this useful meaning: "the customary manner in which a language or a form of a language is spoken or written." Really, usage is about using the right word for the right job. It's a bit like using watercolor paper for watercolor paintings, or using a round brush for fine lines, and so on. (Usage is also about using the right kind of punctuation and grammar, but today we're going to focus on word usage.)

So, while you can find any number of awesome books, websites, and blog posts about common spelling mistakes and usage errors, here are a few to get you started. 

Spelling Errors

'Rediculous.' This is one I see all the time. The correct spelling is 'ridiculous.' I understand why it's easy to want to use the 'e' instead of the 'i,' though. In many places in America, people pronounce the word "ree-dic-yu-lus," particularly when using the word emphatically.  The rest of the time, the vowel sound we use, particularly if we aren't 100% focused on pronunciation, is the 'schwa.' (The vowel sound in 'but.') That vowel sound is represented in English with any number of different vowels, but 'e' is used the most commonly.  

So how can you remember to use the 'i' instead?  The root of 'ridiculous' is 'ridicule.' Almost everybody says 'ridicule' with the proper short 'i' vowel sound, so it's easier to remember. Or, you can also remind yourself to "Get rid of that red." 

Other variations of this spelling error are 'redickulous' or 'ridickulous.' There is no 'k' in ridiculous. Remember this by thinking, "Putting 'k' in 'ridiculous' is just, well, ridiculous."

'Definately.' This is another one of those cases where the pronunciation of the word makes it hard to know what vowel to use.  The correct spelling is 'definitely,' with an 'i.' Remember that the root word of 'definitely' is 'finite.' Now I know you pronounce that with the long 'i' vowel sound, so if you remember to look for the word 'finite' in 'definitely,' you'll succeed.  Another trick to remember, while it is a little vulgar, is this: "If you use an 'a' in 'definitely,' you're definitely an a-hole."

 'Independant.' No, no, no. The proper spelling is 'independent,' with an 'e.'  A good way to remember the correct spelling is that ants live in colonies, so "Ants are not independent." This is especially good for the partner spelling error of 'dependant.' The correct spelling is, of course, 'dependent.' Just modify the reminder to "'Ant's are not in dependent."

'Calender.' If you are talking about that thing that hangs on the wall and tells you what month it is, this is the wrong spelling. 'Calender' is actually a word, so head on over to to check out what it means. So, technically, this is a usage error, but since 'calender' is so obscure, it fits under the category of a spelling error, too. For that thing that tells you what month is it, the correct spelling is 'calendar.' The best way to remember this is thinking of the word 'sugar.' We pronounce the 'ar' in both words the same way. So keep this in mind: "I reminded my self to buy sugar by putting it on the calendar." 

'Excetera.' This one drives me batty ever since I took Latin.  The correct spelling is 'et cetera,' and it's actually two separate words. We use 'et cetera' to mean "and so on," but it literally translates as "and others." If you remember "and so on," you can also remember that the Latin word for 'and' is 'et.' ('Ex' is the Latin word for 'out.')  The abbreviation, accordingly, is 'etc.', not 'exc.'

'Seperate.' The correct spelling is 'separate.'  Remember that if you use a paring knife on an apple, you are separating the apple into pieces. Link the 'par' in 'paring' with the 'par' in 'separate.'

Usage Errors 

English is a wonderful language, but we have a lot of words that sound and/or look similar, so it's easy to make mistakes. Here are a few of the big ones: 

Dependent / Dependant. Wait a minute.  Didn't we just learn that 'dependant' is a spelling mistake? Yes, yes, we did. But, like calendar / calender, the misspelled 'dependant' is actually a word, too. Have you ever listened to your parents talking about their tax returns? You might notice that they said, "We can claim you as a dependant." A dependant is somebody who is dependent on somebody else. Dependant is the noun, dependent is the adjective, but they are pronounced the same way.  Are you confused yet? Thanks, English! However, do remember that 'independant' is not an actual word. 

Rein / Reign. Ah, homophones. Those words that sound the same and drive us all batty. So: 'rein' is that thing you put on a horse to control it. 'Reign' is a king's rule. They are both nouns, but they are also both verbs. 'To rein' is to put reins on something or control something with reins. 'To reign' is to rule. So, not only do they sound the same and are only one letter apart, the meanings seem similar too. When we think of ruling, we think of control, right? It's easy to switch them. So, how do you remember which one to use?  Well, both 'king' and 'reign' have a 'g' in them. Always associate these two words. If you remember that, it should help you remember which word you want.  

The place these words are most commonly misused is in sentences like these: "He reined in his emotions." 'Rein' is the correct word. Think of it as if the emotions are horses that need to be controlled properly. 

Affect / Effect. Oy. These two are really dicey.  They're one letter apart and have very similar meanings.  So how do you remember which to use? Well, 'affect' is always a verb. Most of the time, 'effect' is a noun. When you affect something, you see the effect of it. 'Effect' is the result of something, as in "cause and effect." Mentally connect the 'e' at the end of 'cause' to the 'e' at the beginning of 'effect.'

 Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, if you are using a verb, 'affect' is the right word. 

My presence affected him. 

I hope this doesn't affect your view of me. 

He seems to affect the world all around him. 

Conversely, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, if you are using 'effect,' it is a noun. 

My presence had an effect on him. 

I hope this doesn't have an effect on your view of me. 

He seems to have an effect on the world all around him. 

So you're probably wondering about that other one time out of the hundred that I mentioned, right?  While 'affect' is always a verb, 'effect' is almost always a noun. But, sometimes, 'effect' is a verb. You will use this only in the sense of something has already been done. Think of it as this: "The effect has already been effected."

The change has been effected. (The change has been put into place.)

This has effected change. (This has caused the change to happen.) 

Our loss was already effected. (The loss has already taken place.) 
Remember that THIS IS USUALLY THE EXCEPTION. If you aren't sure which verb to use, use 'affect' and most people won't notice.  The ones who do notice will think, "Well, at least he/she understands the primary difference between 'affect' and 'effect.'

On a related note, sometime the word 'affection' is misspelled as 'effection.' To remember the right way of spelling it, think "I have affection for somebody because they affect my feelings." 

Accept / Except. Accept: take or receive something. Except: leave something out. Mentally link 'except' with 'exit,' because when you exit a room, you are going out of it, and when you except something, you are leaving it out. 

Okay, one more, and then I promise we are done. 

Insure / Ensure. To 'insure' something is to put up money or other goods against a future loss.  For example, you 'insure' your car or your house or your health.  To 'ensure' something is to make sure that it happens. Ensure, the brand of nutritional shakes, is so called because the company wants you to know that it will ensure your good health. Remember: ensuring your health is making sure that you are healthy; insuring your health is paying money now so that if your health gets bad, somebody will help you pay your doctor bills. (You insure your health in order to ensure that you can pay the doctor bills.) So, how do you know which to use? Link 'insure' with 'insurance.' So, if it has something to do with paying money now to protect against potential danger in the future (buying insurance), use 'insure.' If it doesn't have anything to do with that, use ensure. (Ensurance is not a word.) This means that 'ensure' is the correct word most of the time. 

I really could go on, and on, and on, but there are a ton of other resources out there.  On my "Resources for Writers" page, you will notice that I recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The Elements of Style has a bunch of these types of usage errors and will help you improve your writing. 

Remember: being a good storyteller is more important than being a good writer, but it's hard to be a good storyteller when you use the wrong word or misspell one. 

Do you have questions about other words you're concerned you might be using incorrectly? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

Did you find this week's Word-Craft Wednesday useful? Take a moment to share it on your favorite social network.


  1. Yes! I love this part of English! Ahem. And yes, I do tend to be one of said "judgmental tools." Of course, that makes it even worse when I do make a mistake. This is my favorite WW (Wordcraft Wednesday, not World War) yet! I'll be sharing it around everywhere! *maniacal laughter*

    I like your memory tricks. The 'i' in "ridiculous" is one of my most common type-it-right-then-change-my-mind-and-type-it-wrong-and-stare-at-it-for-eight-minutes-because-it-looks-weird-but-my-current-device-has-no-spellcheck errors. Oh, and one could also use the Harry Potter spell "riddikulus" to remember the 'i', if that's the only part of the word that one struggles with.

    1. It's okay, Lizzy, I am a judgmental tool as well (the truth hurts). I can't take the credit for all of the memory tricks - I know for a fact the 'definitely' one was written by somebody else. The ones I think I might have made up probably are a reconstruction of ones I learned in grade and/or high school, so I'm not going to bother taking credit for any of them.

      There is actually a word for memory tricks. Do you know it? It'll be the Word of the Week tomorrow, so if you don't know it, be sure to check back. :)

      The only problem with the Harry Potter spell is that it has a 'k' in it. Associating the two words might help you with the 'i,' but it could also subconsciously make you think that there ought to be a 'k' in ridiculous, even though you know there isn't.