Monday, January 26, 2009

Be Cautious with Auto-Correct

As I’ve not been inspired by any heinous grammatical failings in the past week, I thought I’d warn you all of the insidious influence of the auto-correct feature available in many kinds of word processing software. Certainly, it’s handy to have your typographical errors corrected without having to stop and find them yourself, but allowing your computer to think for you will never replace careful proofreading.

As a case in point, I have had two notable typos that I blame completely on my word processor. The first arose from my inability to spell the name William without stopping at least twice to make certain the letters are in the correct order. My fingers insist on spelling it “Wililam”. I’ve added this spelling to my autocorrect feature, which means that I never actually misspell it any more.

Unless, that is, I’m creating the URL for a page that includes the name. While I could compose the rest of the information in a word processor, that one thing needed to be entered by hand. Having forgotten my name-spelling weakness, I didn’t check what I’d entered until I tried to find the site later. Imagine my chagrin, and how carefully I pored over the rest of the page after I found it.

My second example reveals a different problem with auto-correct, namely that sometimes your computer doesn’t know what you mean. I recently asked someone in an e-mail, in essence, if he had a “like” I could include in the post he had inspired. I don’t know what letters I actually had typed, but they had been “corrected” to like rather than link. I didn’t catch that on a quick read-through and, unsurprisingly, received a rather confused response from the gentleman in question.

Let my proofreading failures stand as a warning to you. Tools help, but you can’t always trust them. Remember to proofread carefully, rather than depending on those squiggly lines to alert you to your errors.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A or An Historic Day?

I received a suggestion that, on this historic occasion, I review the use of the articles “a” and “an” with regard to the word historic. I could have sworn that I wrote about this question long ago, and intended to drop a link for everyone with some wishes that everyone enjoy this auspicious inauguration day.

I could find no such post, so I’ll start from scratch. You can use a very simple rule for deciding whether to use a or an before a word, a rule that relies not on the written word but on your accent. You use the article “an” before a word for which you pronounce with a beginning vowel sound.

No one can dictate how different regions or countries pronounce a word. Thus, in some places, Barack Obama’s inauguration is an historic event. In others, a hippopotamus holds more interest. In the United States, as a rule, people pronounce the initial h and thus use the article “a” with such words. In Great Britain, again as a rule, trying to twist your tongue from “a”, over a dropped h, and straight to ‘istoric, may result in an horrible sprain.

So enjoy the spectacle of a historic event, be tolerant of the vagaries of regional dialects, and use whichever article allows you to comfortably read this sentence aloud.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Poor Examples from Some Pros

In perusing the back of a cereal box, the other day, I realized that I hadn't posted bad examples for writers in some time. Thus, I'll share the errors I've recently noted in articles and other commercial writing of late. We'll start with that cereal box, upon which it was made clear to me that punctuation lies outside of the capabilities of the design and copy writing folks at Post. It read as follows:

So enjoy
delicious fiber
rich whole grain
Post [product]...
The text was wrapped around a picture, but still could have been saved with a hyphen, a comma, and more judicious placement of line breaks. As printed, it looks like a list of things to enjoy rather than a recommendation of their product.

There are sites dedicated for the soul purpose of chatting.
Note that this was not an article about religious bulletin board sites. I post this for the sole reason of reminding people that a difference exists between the words.
…leaving $.36 to be split evenly between [our site] and the user who is "recompensated" for the download. The system determines which user to recompensate based on things such as…
This came from the explanation of an affiliate program. One would think that putting the word “recompensated” in quotation marks in the first sentence would have been a clue that it wasn't a real word and should have been treated similarly in the second. The “author” would have done better simply using the word compensate.

Updated January 16, 2009 to include this gem from an Associated Press article:
Police divers were using sonar to find the engines, which was believed to be in the water.
One would think that the police divers would know where the sonar device lay, as they were using it.

I post these examples for two reasons: to point out that even professional copy writers make errors and to remind you to proofread not only for language but for layout. In many cases, a writer has little or no control over how their work appears, but using proper punctuation and language can ensure that those who do the layouts understand what you've written and keep words like fiber-rich together, where they belong.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Back to Basics: Apostrophes

In response to a recent comment from Linda on an earlier post, I have gathered here my previous apostrophe posts and will attempt to cover any ground I've missed among them. I had intended this post to rely heavily on these earlier examples, but I discovered, to my chagrin, that I hadn't ever written a really basic piece about apostrophes. I intend to correct that oversight here.

And now for the basic definitions. You use apostrophes to indicate either possession, by a noun, or at least one letter having been left out of a word. The latter occurs most often in contractions such as “don't”, “can't”, and you've” but also shows up when parts of words or numbers have been left off of the start or end, especially in dates. You can write, “During the '80s,” to indicate that you have left off the 19 in the year. Note that the expression requires only one apostrophe, as the ending s indicates a plural number of years and not the decade's possession of something.

If you are anything like me, you'll find one use of the apostrophe confusing. Sources consider it appropriate to use the apostrophe when indicating more than one lower case letter, as in “mind your p's and q's”. You need not include the punctuation when talking about more than one capital letter (Ls), number (7s), or symbol (?s). I don't understand that rule, but I include it here for completeness.

I hope that answers your questions, Linda, and gives you an idea of what you can and should not do with apostrophes. If anyone needs more clarification, please drop me a note below and I'll answer them in the near future.