Is "propaganda" making a "right goose" of you?
One thing I regret from my time tutoring first year Bachelor of Education students is not having kept a list of all the quirky errors I discovered when I was assessing essay assignments. I don't mean the usual fare of misspellings and typos that could easily (and should) have been avoided with the use of Microsoft Word's spelling checker. Rather, I'm referring to word choices that are beyond the scope of a computer program.
Sadly, there's only one of these errors that now comes to mind, but it's a good one; a student's use of "proper gander" instead of "propaganda." I pictured a very fine goose, resplendent in a bow tie, and heading out for a posh dinner, and perhaps ballet at the theatre. This was a far cry from the student's intended meaning: "information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view" (Google dictionary).
It would be relatively easy to criticise writers for such errors, but haven't we all done something similar? I know that I have (as you'll soon discover).
There are a number of reasons for our "word fails," including: mishearing words or phrases, narrow reading and life experiences, foreign language words, and word confusion amongst others. Let's explore some of these.
Mishearing words or phrases
It's common for children (and adults) with hearing impairment to struggle with speech and, consequently, spelling. The process of hearing the sounds in a word, and then mapping those sounds to the letters in the English language (encoding), are fundamental to the development of written language. English is a tricky language at the best of times!
That said, it's reasonable to assume that we all mishear words or phrases at times. Take, for example, the memes that do the rounds on Facebook, YouTube, and the internet; misquoted song lyrics (humorous adult version) are some of the funniest.
As a child, I remember my cousins pointing out a large ant. I thought they called it an "inchment." I was an adult working in a school when I used that word to refer to the same type of ant in the playground. The teacher with whom I was working asked me to repeat what I'd said, and when I did she laughed out loud! A literal LOL! I completely missed the joke until she explained that the ant was actually called an "inchman." I checked. She was right. Oops! Clearly, I'd misheard my cousins.
Narrow reading and life experiences
Reading is beneficial to expanding vocabulary and assisting with spelling competence. It is through reading widely (diverse topics and authors, for example) that we are exposed to words beyond those in our personal lexicon or in common usage.
If you've heard a word (or phrase) spoken, but never seen it as text, confusion as to the correct spelling of the word (or phrase) can occur. For example, in 2004 an earthquake in the Indian Ocean resulted in a tsunami that devastated the Aceh province in Indonesia. I remember hearing the word "Aceh" repeatedly in radio news broadcasts at the time. It was only because I'd heard the word spoken that I was later able to recognise and pronounce it when I read it in context in newspaper headlines, and I would not have been able to spell it correctly without having read it.
Similarly, engagement in various life adventures can increase our exposure to the specialist words, phrases, and structure of language used in different fields of study or in hobbies, for example.
Foreign language words
The assimilation of foreign language words into the English language occurs frequently. Instead of anglicising words and phrases through a change of spelling or pronunciation, however, words are often imported "as is" from the language of origin. This can cause confusion with spelling, as these words do not necessarily follow the debatable logic of standard English spelling rules.
Some examples of words that have been assimilated into English are: ballet, café, déjà vu, and genre (from the French language); delicatessen and kindergarten (German); glitch and klutz (wonderfully expressive words assimilated from Yiddish); ad hoc, bona fide, de facto, and magnum opus (Latin); and alfresco and paparazzo/paparazzi (Italian).
Sometimes words sound similar but have very different meanings. A number of words in this category commonly cause confusion to writers.
I once described myself as a "ponderous" writer in an undergraduate assignment at uni. What I'd meant to convey was that I carefully considered every word, pondering whether each was the best choice. My English education unit lecturer pointed out that I'd confused the meaning of the word; ponderous actually means "(1) of great weight; heavy; massive; (2) awkward or unwieldy; (3) dull and labored" (dictionary.com). I'm very grateful that my lecturer understood that none of those definitions were what I had intended to express. I've since found this error in others' writing. It's not an uncommon error, apparently.
A pair of words that I have often seen confused are "imminent" (impending) and "eminent" (distinguished), and I've seen writers use "rapped," "rapt," and "wrapped" interchangeably as well. There are many more word pairs (or trios) that cause similar confusion for writers. Unfortunately, we can be "clueless" as to such errors, hence the adage "You don't know what you don't know."
If you have any doubts about the meaning or appropriate use of a word, a dictionary will likely come in handy. After all, it's better to be safe than sorry (or embarrassed).
A few words about word choices
When writers choose words that increase readability and comprehension they are being mindful of readers at all levels of scholarship. The use of more complex words may make authors, particularly those writing for an academic audience, feel that they will be judged as more intelligent by their readers (most likely their examiners or assessors). In Oppenheimer's (2005) aptly titled article, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly," he reported on five different experiments, the results of which effectively demonstrated that "needless complexity leads to negative evaluations" (p. 151) of a writer's intelligence. Plainly speaking, language processing is made easier when we write simply. Apparently, insecure authors are those most likely to use more complex words in their writing (Pennebaker & Lay, 2002, as cited in Oppenheimer, 2005).
To be honest, it's very easy to feel insecure as a writer, especially an early-career academic author. During my doctoral candidature, for example, several exemplar theses had been recommended to me as appropriate doctoral reading, only for me to find them almost inaccessible in terms of their language. This needlessly complex writing had the effect of heightening my sense of impostorship and left me feeling completely inadequate as an academic writer. It was only when I decided to put those works (and my fears) aside and develop my own writing style—to write my own way—that I began to feel confident in my approach and to like what I had written. Moreover, that approach eventually paid off when one of my doctoral thesis examiners (Examiner 2) commented:
"The thesis text is very nicely organized and also clearly, even gracefully, written. It avoids often obfuscating 'professional' jargon, while still conveying, with clarity and precision, quite sophisticated and complex ideas. (This is, in my judgment, a sometimes under-appreciated attribute of scholarly theses.)"
Many years later, I still appreciate that my thesis examiner recognised, acknowledged, and valued my efforts to make my academic writing accessible. I still strive to make all my writing user-friendly.
Our writing leaves a lasting impression
Although I believe that we're all far more substantial than our words on paper or screen, it's an unfortunate fact that readers make judgements about such attributes as intelligence, competence, and integrity based solely on the quality of our writing.
When you put your writing "out there" you are creating a legacy; you leave a lasting impression.
It may not matter to any great extent if your spelling and grammar are "a bit off" when writing a Facebook post. However, applying for a new job, handing in a report, or submitting a masters or doctoral thesis or journal article riddled with even minor errors can create, at best, a petty annoyance for your readers or examiners. At worst, ... well, you get the picture.
What a copyeditor or proofreader can do for you
Asking a family member or friend to check your writing for you can be helpful, although you need to ensure that the person you ask for assistance has the necessary skills to check your writing, and understands both the genre and your audience.
If you want to leave readers with a positive impression, an alternative approach is to engage the services of a professional copyeditor to help you to improve the quality of your writing, or a proofreader to give your writing a final check. If you're not sure which type of editorial assistance you need, this fact sheet may help you to understand the core differences between copyediting and proofreading.
"It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly." (C. J. Cherrye)
In Australia, the Institute of Professional Editors "is the professional association for Australian and New Zealand editors. It exists to advance the profession of editing and to support and promote Australian and New Zealand editors" (IPEd). If you want to engage the services of an editor, it is a good idea to enlist the support of an editor who is an IPEd member or associate member.
Ultimately, when it comes to your writing, you want to leave your readers with a great first impression. After all, that's often the one that lasts.
And, just for a bit of fun to end this post, here's a link to a catchy song about word crimes by Weird Al Yankovic. Enjoy! And, do get in touch if you think I can be of assistance with copyediting (or formatting).
Oppenheimer, D. M. (2005). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 139–156. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1178