Of writing, wordsmithing, and making mistakes

During the past week or so, I have been writing, shaping, and “wordsmithing” a five-page memo for my boss.  It has been a learning process in some respects, and he’s been very patient in explaining some aspects of the subject matter to me so I could state things more purposefully.  We have an essentially finished product at this point, but I am left with a couple of questions:

  1. Did I say this or that in the best way possible?
  2. I found a typo and an another error or two in the fifth of six drafts.  How likely is it that errors yet remain in the memo?

In one way or another, I am often involved in writing.  I’ve written (typed) newsletters, hundreds of blogposts, five books, a few articles, hundreds of pages of music, program notes, research papers, memos, and volumes of substantial e-mail since the dawn of the home computer age.¹  All this writing has involved many, many mistakes.  I know all too well how often I make a mistake.  My typing speed can peak near 100 WPM, but the real speed is probably more like 70-75, minus 20-30, because of all the backspacing and correcting.

My engagement with writing sometimes extends into reading other people’s writing with a critical eye; I’ve been known to sit down with a pen in hand while reading a newspaper or magazine—not because of any plan to share “mistake finds” with the author but because it’s so proofreaders-marksnatural to notice and correct mistakes that it can actually seem slower to read without marking them.  (This proofreading habit/trait/obsession is sometimes annoying to me and often inexplicable to others.)

Aside:  the word “error” might be etymologically related to the word “err,” but the former should be pronounced with a different initial vowel sound.  No matter how many newscasters, talk show hosts, teachers, and business professionals say it incorrectly, “err” does not rhyme with “air.”  (Okay, this is a pet peeve, and at some point I’ll have to “cave” [what an interesting verb, that . . . I hadn’t previously thought about its imagery] and admit that language is a fluid thing.  What was once incorrect might later be considered correct.)

How humbling, and sometimes maddening, and yet delightful written language can be!  (Did you know there is a book called The Joy of Lex?)  Turns of phrases, diction and declamation, alliteration and consonance, puns and homonyms, synonyms and other -nyms (not nymphs, mind you!), and etymology can all be pleasures—or the causes of annoyance.  I often second-guess my choice of “may” and change it to “might” (as I did at the beginning of the previous paragraph), because I was taught that “may” indicates permission whereas “might” indicates possibility.  Punctuation can be a singularly annoying facet of writing.  American and British punctuation have developed differently, e.g., the use of “single quotes” vs. double quotes and the placement of a comma or period in relation to quotation marks.  Despite my non-Britishness, in terms of punctuation technicalities, I feel a great sympatico with British guru Lynne Truss, who wrote this in Eats Shoots and Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

I saw a sign for “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped. . . .

Moving away from the personal and toward the more generally applicable . . . I further agree with Truss’s assertion that “proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”  (Read that quote again and see if you don’t agree, too.)  Even the onslaught of errors with plurals and possessives (and plural possessives) may chafe, and I should probably pay less attention to them, reserving energy for deeper matters of writing such as clarity, transitions, and solid, rational argumentation.  (Redundancy and repetitiveness and repeating oneself are also issues and matters of concern!  I counted 15 instances of the phrase “with regard to” in one man’s presentation.)  Still, there is the baseline need to know words.  Usually, I know when I don’t know a spelling or a usage.  For instance, last week, I was not confident of my ability to use the term “cash flow” in our work milieu, so I asked someone who knows far more about it than I do.  It might surprise many of my readers to know that “cash flow” may be used as a verb, i.e., “that business operation won’t cash flow.”  In a sort of word-reverie that occurs in my odd head from time to time, I began to wonder whether, in future years, the two words will become one.  “Flow” is already both a verb and a noun, so maybe an evolved, concatenated “cashflow” will eventually be the norm.

Continuing in the word trance . . . thinking about two words vs. one leads me to the term “set up.”  I prefer to use two words when it’s a verb and one when it’s a noun (not hyphenating the two).  Thus, I would set up a schedule for graduate students to be responsible for an ensemble’s setup.   Others might take no thought for this term at all or might see it differently, using the hyphenated “set-up” as the noun.  I would say that the least accurate usage occurs with the verb use of the hyphenated version:  “John, would you set-up the tables for me?”  (Did you notice the adjectival use of the word “verb” there?  I opted for the unadorned word “verb” as an adjective since “verbal” is commonly used to mean “oral,” as in “verbal communication.”  Ain’t words great?)

I have discovered more errors in my writing than I want to admit.  There will probably be some in this post.  By the way, I looked up the word “wordsmith” to make sure it was properly one word and not two.

To be continued . . . 

In the meantime, enjoy this 30-second video from the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Or if you prefer a more contextually robust experience, here’s the full 2-minute version.

¹ Are we seeing the sunset of the home computer age already?  I sincerely hope not, and yet it is clear that small-device screens (less useful for most e-activities I care most about) are increasingly depended on.  More and more websites are designed with smart phones in mind, so it takes more steps to access what I want to access on a full-sized screen.  The younger generation seems not to understand the benefit of a real map (perspective beyond a few streets!) and more screen real estate (perspective beyond the 18 words simultaneously visible in a text!).  It also appears to have increasing difficulty understanding written communication with good punctuation (and without texter abbreviations).

7 thoughts on “Of writing, wordsmithing, and making mistakes

  1. Sally Clark 02/12/2017 / 4:25 pm

    I love EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES and THE JOY OF LEX, two of my favorite books!


    • Brian Casey 02/12/2017 / 4:55 pm

      Nice to know! I don’t actually own copies of either but have read a lot in my parents’ copy of Lynne Truss and have glanced at the other.


  2. Anne B. 02/12/2017 / 6:13 pm

    Enjoyed your article immensely! I often smile, chuckled, even laughed out loud. I feel your “pain.” ;-). I cannot help it – – I proofread everything I read. I proofread the xerox copy of my computer math professor’s textbook. ( I am sure there is better way to write that sentence, but I am letting go of perfection at the moment.) He was very grateful to have his work corrected. I even found a mistake in the way he had worked a math problem!

    Thank you for sharing the two minute Monty Python clip. Dan was a linguist among other things, and all of our kids are quite verbal experts… I did not say verbose. We always had interesting and entertaining Conversations during meal time. Spellcheck and Siri drive me crazy – – they disagree with my words, my choice of punctuation and capitalization. Sometimes when I have forgotten to proofread my message before I click send, my messages have been converted into something stupid. Occasionally, my messages have been converted into something obscene. (I hope I have called all of those.) Write on… even if you are redundant, repeat yourself, or find yourself being repetitive! 🙄🤔😂


  3. Anne B. 02/12/2017 / 6:22 pm

    Proofreading what I just wrote, I found where spellcheck changed my next to last sentence. I said (I hope I have caught all of those.)

    Spellcheck changed “caught”to the word “called.” Also, the 2 complaints I made about spellcheck and Siri were immediately set up so they could be removed. I did not do that myself! 😂


    • Brian Casey 02/19/2017 / 8:53 pm

      I’m glad this was a good read for you … and I decided to leave your “non-proofed” first comment as is — Exhibit A, as it were! That happens to me all the time. In fact, I spent more than 2 hours proofing and editing 3 posts today. I thought I had them “perfect,” and there were two blatant errors in the first one when it went live.


  4. Steve 02/14/2017 / 10:59 am

    At least I have one colleague concerning the pronunciation of “err.” I’ve had this ongoing dialogue (approaching the level of intense battle!) with my wife about this word–to no avail. “Nobody says ‘err’ like you do,’ says my wife.” As if that were the definitive determination of right and wrong. Now I know someone who does say “err” like I do! Yahoooooo!


    • Brian Casey 02/19/2017 / 8:55 pm

      Your wife is right that (almost) no one says “err” like we do, but of course she’s just as wrong as she is right. :”-)




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