The i-e Confusion

“I just can’t take it anymore!”

Elbows planted on his desk, Dis  Connect clutched his remaining wisps of hair in an attempt to control his frustration.

I-e twirl“I know the rule is ‘before e except after c,‘ but that doesn’t work for in lieu of,” he groaned. “How am I supposed to get this report done if I can’t get the spelling right?”

Grammar Smith nodded in sympathy.

“The old saw has more than that,” she explained. “The whole thing is ‘i before e except after c and in words like neighbor and weigh.’ The long a words tend to be the exception.”

“That’s the problem,” Dis exclaimed. “There’s a rule, but there are almost as many exceptions as rules. How’s a body supposed to deal with that?”

“Yes, just when you think you’ve got it settled, someone tosses in a word like leisure to throw it all into confusion again,” Grammar said. “The thing to remember is that it isn’t a hard and fast rule; it’s more a guideline. I use it for words I tend to confuse like chief and shield.”

“Thanks goodness for Spellcheck!” Dis declared as he pounded away at his keyboard.


How We Leap into Chaos When We Spell the Way We Speak

Happy Leap Day!Shrf's cawfee
I was talking with a colleague recently about how people misspell words. One that always gets me is when people write “use” when they mean “used.” For example, she use to go to school with me.

Amanda pointed out people make that type of mistake because they are writing words the way they hear them. This is just like using “could of” and “would of” instead of “could have” or “could’ve” and “would have” or “would’ve.”

Part of the problem is folks don’t read enough anymore to recognize the difference (and good, correct writing is getting harder to come by). Part of the problem is there are regional differences in the U.S. (and anywhere else, for that matter) that affect what we say and how we pronounce things.

For instance, my mother-in-law would say, “I’m going down cellar.” She would leave out the article “the” all the time. (It was always “cellar,” never “basement,” too.)

One phrase I had to get used to when I moved to the South was “put it up” instead of “put it away.”

My mother, a bit of a stickler for good grammar, was not immune. She would not turn a light on or off; she would “open” the light or “close” it.

Anyone hearing me talk about Long Island would immediately recognize by my hard pronunciation of the “ng” that I grew up in the New York metropolitan area. (I wonder what I would put at the end of “long” if I was spelling it as I speak it, a “k”?) My son-in-law laughs at me when I say coffee (cawfee) or sheriff (shrf). Sigh.

Sometimes my many years spent living in Central New York will pop up when I find the diphthong ou coming out as “oo” instead of “ow”: He was aboot to jump off the cliff.

One thing that sets off my grammar radar is when people mispronounce “suite.” People often pronounce it like suit instead of sweet. When people say, “I bought a new living room suite [pronounced suit],” I always get this vision of an easy chair in pinstripes and double rows of buttons.

Amanda cautions her students that, while differences in pronunciation are acceptable when speaking, they shouldn’t be made when writing.

Can you imagine the chaos if everyone wrote exactly the way they spoke?

Weekend Wrinkle: Speling – I Mean “Spelling” – Troubles

I’m lucky. I was trained to be a good speller since I was a child. I’d ask my mother how to spell something, and she’d direct me to a dictionary.

Reading – a lot – also helps. Words are symbol combinations. Spelling is primarily recognizing and using the correct symbol combinations.

We want to spell well to keep our writing clear. Creative spelling makes things difficult for the reader, something we always try to avoid, right?

Now, I still have problems spelling lots of words: truly and judgment among them. So what do we do to keep it correct?

Spell checkers help, especially with the old “typing so fast I transpose letters” problem. However, the big limit to these is synonyms. Spell checkers can’t catch words spelled correctly but used incorrectly.

I keep a dictionary nearby, which also helps. If something doesn’t look quite right, I look it up. One trick I learned recently is to write the correct spelling of my “demons” on a list nearby so I don’t have to look them up all the time. (There are just some words that, for whatever reason, I will never get right.)

If you have trouble spelling, it’s a good idea to have someone else look over your writing. Fresh eyes catch embarrassing mistakes.

How do you deal with your spelling struggles?

Writer, correct thyself!

Last time, I talked about how important revision is. What we write serves as our introduction to strangers. Just like in a job interview, first impressions are important.

Editing and proofreading are important parts of revision. Although the bulk of our efforts should be spent on organization, we mustn’t forget the details. Think of it as a wedding cake. The structure is vital, but it’s the details that make everyone go, “Ahhh!”

“If I make a mistake, how can I know that I’ve made it let alone correct it?”

Never fear! It’s usually not as hard as we want to believe.

The first thing to remember is that we begin writing by just trying to get the information or story down. We never expect that first effort to be perfect because we know we’ll go back and revise it.

We all have weak spots in our writing that we should become familiar with. I know that I tend to repeat certain words and phrases. I also have a hard time spelling certain words (truly, judgment, etc.). Then there’s my tendency toward overblown vocabulary, parenthetical statements, and convoluted sentences. I know I do all this, so I look for these when I’m revising.

Spelling and Word Use

For those who have trouble spelling and using the correct words, there’s good news – and bad news. Most word processing software has spell check and grammar check capabilities. Spell check is very helpful, especially for those of us whose minds work faster than our fingers. I love it when it changes “adn” to “and” automatically.

However, spell check doesn’t know the difference between homonyms, words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. Their, there, and they’re are major culprits as are its and it’s. Learn how each should be used and work to always use them correctly. (One of my pet peeves is alot, which is not a real word.)

Sentence Structure

Lots of people have problems with sentence structure. They either tend to write sentence fragments, or they write run-on sentences.

Fragments often happen when we start a sentence with a dependent clause and neglect to write in the independent clause that it depends on. This is why many people were told in elementary school not to begin a sentence with “because.” Because he was the cutest and nicest boy at the school dance. That is not a sentence. We are left asking, “So?”

Think of fragments as building a hot rod, except that you neglect to put the right rear hub and wheel on. It looks cool, but it isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes we want to use fragments for effect, but we can’t make the mistake of thinking we can get away with it all the time. Then it goes from writing for effect to sloppiness.

Run-on sentences come in two forms: fused and comma splices. Fused sentences happen when we just stick a bunch of independent clauses together without giving the reader clues, through punctuation, that they are different thoughts. I saw a program about Scotland yesterday it was interesting it talked about kilts and whiskey it talked about food including haggis it had a segment about Scottish games the contestants threw a bunch of things the caber, or a big pole, was the most unusual.

Comma splices are way too common. Yes, I know; nobody likes, commas. They’re a pain in the neck. However, sometimes we ask the comma to carry too heavy a burden. Harry and Maude went to the movies, they saw “Guardians of the Universe.” Here we are asking the comma to hold up two independent clauses on its own. It needs help. Either put in a coordinating conjunction after the comma or replace the comma with a semicolon. (By the way, grammar check doesn’t recognize comma splices as grammatically incorrect – one of the many reasons why we shouldn’t rely on it too much.)

Listen, this is not rocket science. Does it take effort? Yes! Is it easy? No, but then writing well is never really easy. Yet the payoff for all this hard work is that our readers have a much better impression of us.