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:
- Did I say this or that in the best way possible?
- 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 natural 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 . . .
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).