Friday, August 20, 2010

Did You Say Great Speller? How ‘bout Great Grammarian?

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of The Frugal Editor

A few weeks ago I was inspired by June Casagrande's column, “A Word Please.” It appears weekly in the Glendale News-Press, an affiliate of the LA Times. I often clip her columns to read later or to follow up on her inspiration – later, of course.

This particular column I clipped was on spelling. You know, stuff like spelling bees and how brilliant kids can humiliate adults in certain arenas. On how Brits spell differently from Americans. That reminded me of how we Americans nurtured on British literature have so many problems with spelling (I still can't get "grey" right.).

And let’s not even talk about syntax or how we use prepositions differently.

But her column also reminded me of what a great speller I am. Or thought I was. As a child I was pretty darn good at those spelling bees myself. Got straight As in English and on and on. Then, one day I spelled a word wrong – in an art class of all places! My teacher asked me to look at the word. Nothing but "Duhhh . . . "

Then he asked some of my classmates to look at the word. I can't even tell you what the word was. Maybe something like "definitely" because it had something to do with an "i" and "a." None of my classmates had a clue either. So the teacher said, or rather ranted, "See, see? That's why we have dictionaries!"

Suddenly my confidence went down the proverbial drain – in this case, the drain of spelling awareness. He made me nervous. Now, even when I know I'm right, I fear I'm not. Do I remember the spelling the way I did it "before" when I spelled it wrong, or am I remembering the "after" when I had checked to see if I had it right? I can’t remember, so I have to go back to the dictionary again. Or do my Word Spell Checker. Geesh. Such a waste of time and brain power.

One of those before and after words for me is "recommendation." Two "c's" and two "m's" or only one "c" and... Well, you get the idea. There are times that Word's spell checker is a Godsend. I have it on autopilot. It doesn't even tell me when I spell "recommendation" wrong. It just corrects it. Which is probably one of the reasons that I can't remember. Someone or something is doing my work for me.

So when others assume I know everything about editing because I wrote a book on editing or because I am The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor on my blog (, I must own up. I have to check. It’s partially the fault of a brain full of trivia (yes, some grammar is trivia!), but it’s also because English has changed.

There’s another reason, too. English isn’t nearly as rule-oriented as people think it is (or would like it to be!). There are style choices. The style designated by the publishers of books is often more stringent that the styles espoused by newspapers, and I’ve written both. Now, just try to keep all that straight.

No, don’t try to keep all that straight! You use something editors call style guides. Chicago is the one I use when I’m writing a book and AP is the one I use when I’m freelancing for newspapers. Sometimes I get to choose whatever I darn well prefer. So, I’m sticking with “e-mail” over “email.” Both are correct. The former makes more sense to me. I just have to face that I’m fighting a losing battle.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is an award-winning author. Her published books include This Is the Place; The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher (; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success ( Her new booklet called Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy is available on Amazon ( It’s a great brush-up for avoiding humiliation over stuff we never knew or forgot. Carolyn is the recipient of the California Legislature's Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award. She is a popular speaker and actor. Her website is

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1 comment:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Now you know all my secrets! Yvonne, thanks for sharing this with your amazing WritersInTheSky clients, subscribers, and visitors!
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