I’d like to introduce you to friend and a wonderful teacher. One that every writer can learn from, Kathryn Johnson. I coerced her into visiting….
Even the most intelligent and educated people make screamers of writing mistakes. I know this because, when I’m not writing my own stories, I teach creative writing and edit other people’s stories. Most authors would never dream of sending me a manuscript without first running it through a spell-check program and carefully eyeballing it for errors. But I see the same sorts of mistakes in grammar or spelling, time and again. Are you among the confused when it comes to these words?
1) Lightning: This is what we are likely to see in a thunderstorm. There is no ‘E’ in the word. Many people misspell it as ‘lightening,’ which refers to making an object weigh less or making something brighter.
2) All right: This is the proper spelling (two words) when you wish to say that you agree or that you’re doing okay. ‘Alright’ is used informally all the time, but it has not yet been accepted into dictionaries and other standard reference sources.
3) Lay/lie: Oh, my! So many of us have trouble with these words. Here’s a simple way to sort them out (at least, as simple as it gets). We lay down an object, but we lie down when we’re tired. Lay and lie are both present-tense verbs. But ‘lay’ requires a direct object in the sentence. (I lay the book on the table.) If there is no direct object in present tense, then the word to use is ‘lie.’ Added confusion arises with past tense and past perfect—for a review of those, see Strunk & White’s On Writing Well.
4) Breath/breathe: We take a deep breath before diving into water. (Breath is a noun.) But when the body draws air into our lungs we breathe. (Breathe is a verb.) They can’t be used interchangeably.
5) Jewelry is often misspelled as jewelery. That may partially be due to a difference between the American spelling of the word and the UK version (jewellery). For the purpose of writing in the U.S., stick with jewelry.
6) Lose/loose: Another set of words that befuddles us. The difference is in their use. Lose is a verb. (I almost never lose the car keys.) Loose is an adjective. (A tiger got loose from the zoo.)
7) Forty: It’s easy to see why some people have trouble with this one. We spell the number 4 as ‘four’. So why shouldn’t we spell a related number (40) as ‘fourty’. But we don’t. The correct spelling is forty.
8) Affect/effect: Oh, this is a nasty one. Unless we remember that, again, there’s the verb/noun difference. Affect is a verb. (Does the weather affect you?) Effect is a noun. Think of special effects in movies.
9) Their, there, they’re: We can untangle these if we just stop and sort out the meanings. ‘Their’ indicates possession. (We visited their cabin in the woods.) ‘There’ points to a place. (The cabin is over there.) ‘They’re’ is short for ‘they are’. (They’re going hiking in the woods tomorrow.) Whenever you’re unsure, try substituting ‘they are’ in the sentence. If it works, you’ve eliminated the other two.
10) Truly…never truely. You drop the -e to form this adverb.
Since spelling checkers won’t catch many of these errors, it’s up to us writers to keep a wary eye for these easy-to-make mistakes. But if your eye just refuses to catch slipups in your stories, find a friend, family member or professional editor with an eagle eye to point them out to you. The cleaner your manuscripts, the more likely you are to find a publisher willing to work with you!