Many mechanical errors that I see in both student and professional writing are obviously caused not by the author's lack of knowledge about correct usage but by his lack of concern for correctness.
Sometimes this is a philosophical stance, based on the belief that correct usage is not all that important and that as long as a reader can make sense of a writer's work, then mechanical errors are irrelevant. (I argue against this position in my article "Why Bother with Spelling and Grammar Rules?" Some comments I received in the talk-back box when that article was posted on Themestream argue rather vehemently that mechanical errors are not important.)
Those writers who are not concerned with cleaning up mechanical errors in their work will not find what I say in this article interesting or useful. But I suspect that some ardent proponents of the position that correctness doesn't matter have taken that position in self-defense. In many cases it's not that they wouldn't like to be able to write correctly, but that the rules often seem so puzzling, arcane, and inconsistent that they despair of ever mastering them.
And as if the difficulty were not itself a sufficient obstacle to the aspiring writer, there are the self-appointed "Grammar Police," just waiting to pounce on any error and to hold its perpetrator up to public ridicule.* In the face of such mean-spirited attacks, it is no wonder that some people get defensive about the issue of correctness in their writing.
In my grammar and usage articles, I make no attempt to teach a lot of grammar, though sometimes I do offer some grammar, just to explain why something should be done one way rather than another. I am mainly interested in identifying points of grammar and usage that people are likely to have trouble with and to want quick, clear, authoritative answers to. The fact that these are among my most popular articles suggests that is exactly what a lot of writers are looking for.
So let's assume you want to minimize the mechanical errors in your own writing, but you dread the idea of "going back to school" to a subject you probably hated the first time through. Is there anything you can do to significantly reduce your errors, short of undertaking a prolonged course of study?
Actually, there is. In fact, it is not at all difficult to dramatically improve your writing within an astonishingly short time. (I am referring here only to correctness, not to the quality of style or content--though of course correctness does have some bearing on style.)
There are two main steps to this process: (1) correcting errors that you really know better than to make, and (2) correcting errors you make either because you don't know they are errors, or because you don't know how to spot and correct them in your writing.
For the rest of this article I will focus only on the first step of this process. The second step is dealt with in
I am astonished sometimes at the evidence that some internet writers don't even check their work once they have posted it. Some of the errors (mostly typos, like "wwhichc," which I saw in an article I once read) are so obvious that even a quick once-over would reveal them. Of course, it's always possible that an article was posted under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or sleep-deprivation, but even then the writer could go back the next day while rested and sober to look over his work.
All writers make errors when they write or type. Not some writers, all writers. Some don't know they are committing an error, so they can't fix it. Some know the correct usage, but carelessly let an error slip by in the heat of composition. Some are just lousy typists. (That would be me.)
It isn't always easy to spot typos or careless errors on the computer screen. For this reason, I strongly recommend that you print out your article so that you can proofread it on paper. You are likely to catch many more errors that way than if you do all your proofing on the computer.
I know this from experience. The computers I use to post my internet articles are not connected to working printers. Consequently, typos and other errors that would never get past me on paper go unnoticed until I get a heads-up from an alert reader. Jean Levack and Beverly Carol Lucey have been particularly helpful about alerting me to the typos I have left in my articles. Sandy Siegel even spotted a major content error in one grammar and usage article when it was still posted on Themestream. When I revised one part of my article "What Words Should I Capitalize in a Title?", I accidentally deleted verbs from the list of words that should be capitalized in titles!
How could I allow such a serious omission? Simple. I had proofread the finished article after posting it, but when I went back a few days later to revise it so it would be easier to follow, I did not proofread the whole thing again, since I had, after all, done so when I first posted it. I didn't even notice that I had deleted verbs from the list. The worst part is that the error went unnoticed for months, until Sandy stumbled across the article in December and left a question about it in my comment box.
When I saw there was a new comment on the article, I went back to see what it was, and only then discovered what a serious error I had made. If she had not come across the article, that error would still be there.
So not only should you proofread your article carefully after you first post it--you should also proofread it carefully each time you revise it.
Even after you have proofread your article in preview mode and on paper, you still have more checking to do. Examine the article again after it is posted, as it will appear to your readers.
In the first place, doing this will let you see whether you have formatted the piece effectively for the web page. I wonder how many unreadable fonts or color combinations and how many over-wide images would have been changed if the writer had actually looked at his article after it was posted.
Of course, some of these things won't show up, since they are caused by differences in the browser capabilities from one computer to the next (or so I've been told by those who know more than I do about computers). But I bet some of the problems would show up.
One way to make your proofreading more effective is to keep a list of the errors that you know you commit, even though you really do know better, and then do an extra (i.e., a separate) proofreading for each one of those errors--especially if they are spelling errors of the sort that a spell-checker won't catch, like "are" for "or."
For example, I know the difference between "their" and "there," but when I write longhand (though not when I type), I always use "there" when I mean "their," and vice versa. Therefore (no, I never write "theirfore"), I always proofread my handwritten work separately for that error.
When I type, though never when I write, I type "that" for "than," "teh" for "the," and "soem," "articel," and "peopel" for "some," "article," and "people." You'll find those errors all through my e-mails and my guestbook comments on other people's websites. We all tend to do our e-mails and guestbook comments on the fly, though I really should proofread before I post them. But knowing that I make these typos, I always proofread my articles specifically for them.
I call this "targeted proofreading." Some people need to do targeted proofreading for apostrophes--for a tendency to omit them where they are needed and to add them where they are not.
The most common misuse of apostrophes is "it's" for "its," and vice versa. Another common error is to attach an inappropriate apostrophe to a plural noun, but to forget to put one on a possessive noun. Most people know these rules--they just neglect to look for these errors in their writing. If you have made these errors in the past, you are likely to continue making them, so proofread your work for them.
If you care about correctness in your writing, then take the time to proofread, to make sure that all the errors that you know better than to make are cleared up in your posted articles. Again, I am concerned here only with errors that occur because you let something slip by, not with errors that occur because you don't know they are errors or because you don't know how to recognize them or to fix them.
NOTE: (1/9/01) Just now I proofread this article as posted, and I found at least a half dozen errors I needed to clean up, including a missing period at the end of a sentence. We can almost always find a few errors in a supposedly finished draft if we proofread it carefully after we post it. (This note was appended to this article right after I posted it on Themestream earlier this year.)
ANOTHER NOTE: (1/11/01) An alert Themestream reader of my article "Quotation Marks: A General Explanation of How They Are Used"left a comment pointing out that my list of rules for using quotation marks jumped from number 5 to number 7, omitting 6 altogether. I did proof the posted article, but as I have said, proofing is difficult on a computer. That's why I suggest that if you have the option to do so (I don't), you should proofread a printed copy of your article. (I fixed the error, of course.)
YET ANOTHER NOTE!(1/15/04) Just to how you how easy it is to miss errors when proofreading: Here it is, January 15, 2004 (more than three years after I first posted this article), and an alert reader has spotted another typo. I have fixed it, but until today, the final sentence in the paragraph above had only the left side of the set of parentheses I meant it to have.
*Guess what! The Self-Appointed Grammar Police (SAGP) now have their own website
(click here). Mike Taylor has set up a tongue-in-cheek site that deals with grammar and usage errors committed not by private individuals, but by those who write for the public and really should know better. His "case studies" provide examples of real-life errors that can serve as object lessons for those who want to avoid making errors of a similar type and thus risking arrest by the SAGP.