Is There Really Room for Error in Writing?

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Writing is a battle. On one side: the force of your important message. On the opposing side: the forces of ignorance and misunderstanding. Your weapons: your words. Your support: the entire tradition of the English language.

Calls for more precise writing are often met with complaints of “Aw, do I have to?” That was the response of some readers to our article on Gross Writing Errors Found on the Web. Yes, often your readers will understand you even if you make mistakes in spelling and grammar. But not always.

If your audience doesn’t read English well, one unfortunately-placed mistake could send them into bewilderment. Native English speakers are familiar with native English mistakes and frequently can figure out what the writer really meant. But others may not have the same experience with the language. Looking up “hole” in a dictionary won’t help you understand that the writer meant “whole” – it’s likely to confuse you badly.

As a writer, you have a limited arsenal. A sentence can only hold so many words before your reader loses track of what you’re saying. The English language only has so many synonyms that your reader understands, which limits the vocabulary you can use. So a writer has to squeeze all his or her meaning into a small space. There is little room for error.

Language changes, but it changes slowly. English speakers have been trying to agree on spelling and grammar for almost a millennium since the Norman Conquest, and a millennium and half since the first Anglo-Saxons. MySpace is not going to change the language overnight. What’s the most reliable way to say something important, if you want the most people to understand it: the way it’s been written for five centuries, or the way it’s been written for five years?

Errors in language have cost people their lives and freedom. The Bible, in Judges 12:5-6, tells how fleeing enemy soldiers were trapped and killed because they couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound used by the tribe they pretended to belong to. Some US draft evaders during the Vietnam War tried to pass themselves off as Canadian, but when asked to repeat the alphabet, they were detected when they pronounced the last letter as “zee” (US) rather than “zed” (Canada). During the Salem witch trials of 1692, Rebecca Nurse would have been set free except for her words, “She is one of us,” spoken about another woman. She meant that the woman was a fellow defendant, but the judge thought she meant that the woman was a fellow witch. Rebecca Nurse was hanged because the antecedent of a pronoun was misunderstood. She died because of a mistake in grammar.

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8 thoughts on “Is There Really Room for Error in Writing?”

  1. It is true that non-native English speakers may stumble over the spelling errors. I deal with a second language (Spanish) and often have to look up misspelled words. What I find in the dictionary can be very confusing and not at all relate to the meaning of what was said.

    Recently I got this comment submitted to me:

    what i think is you should learn english first and then translated spanish to english english..

    And the guy claims that I don’t know English.

  2. Interesting examples used at the end, Michael.

    For years in Northern Ireland, it has been assumed, if you pronounce the letter ‘h’ as ‘hetch’, then you’re from the Roman Catholic/Irish side of the community, because the Protestant/British side pronounce it as ‘etch’.

    It’s all very interesting.

  3. I subscribed to your blog recently and I must say that I have received a lot of useful tips. Tks.

    I am not classified as a native English speaker but I speak English most of the time and yet I still make a lot of simple mistakes. I hope to correct them when I write!

  4. I like your site because it is fighting the good fight against the ongoing decay in English literacy. All of us can do a better job, as even you committed a minor error when placing the word “only” in the following sentence: “A sentence can only hold so many words before your reader loses track of what you’re saying.”

    The sentence should read, “A sentence can hold only so many words before your reader loses track of what you’re saying.” Perhaps this universal, though slight, error is worthy of its own post.

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