Sunday, February 5, 2017

Writing 101: Spellcheck Doublecheck (aka "No Job Is too Small to Need a Proofreader")

I know we've talked about the "frenemy" status of Spellcheck before, but I came across something this week that made me realize how important having a proofreader (who actually knows grammar, spelling, and punctuation) can be.

I'm going to start by giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who created the ad we'll look at in a bit.

They may have never heard of the rule that two related words, when modifying the same word (and where the first does not end in -ly) should probably be hyphenated. (Wow, that seems convoluted, doesn't it?) Here are some examples:
  • Cart Stopping Deals vs. Cart-stopping Deals (I've been seeing this at Target, though I don't have a photo for you). The first one would, if read literally, imply that a Cart is Stopping the Deals. The second would say that the Deals are "Cart-stopping."

  • Over Hyped Holiday Shopping vs. Over-Hyped Holiday Shopping. The first, if read with a tone of annoyance, could mean that you are Over all of the Hyped Holiday Shopping. The second implies that the Holiday Shopping has been Overly Hyped. (I feel this way every year as we come up to Valentine's Day.) 
The point in these is that there is a definite difference between the meanings if the words are read individually, versus being used as compound modifiers. The problem - for Spellcheck, at least - is that either phrase in each set could be considered to be correct, depending on the writer's intent.

The second benefit of the doubt that we have to consider is that English is a weird language, and there are variations between British English and American English that make things even more confusing.

True story: my mom is Canadian, and spent her "grammar school" years in Canada. This means that she spells some words differently than my dad does. And, somewhere along the way, I picked up some of those British-Canadian spelling habits. A couple of examples:
  • Traveling (American) vs. Travelling (British)
  • Busing (American) vs. Bussing (British)
  • Jewelry (American) vs. Jewellery (British)
For the most part, these are pretty simple to understand by readers on either side of the borders, and they look mostly right to all of us. But some words don't look right - and there's good reason why. For instance, you probably wouldn't want to say that the Easter Bunny was coming "hoping" down the bunny trail. And you wouldn't say that a grumpy teenager had been "mopping" in his room all day.

I'd like to think that this Easter Bunny is hopeful.

And now, a bit of personal context before we finally get to the point of this post:

In one of my past jobs, I worked with an incredible marketing team. They were some of the most creative people I've ever met, and we had a phenomenal graphic designer who would take vague ideas and produce the most incredible mailers. We had been working together on a piece that was only going to have one word (three times) on the front of it. That word was: "Surprise."

When the postcard came to me to be proofed - having already been seen by three other people - the copy on the front said: "Suprise, Suprise, Suprise!"

One word. Three times. And if it had gone out that way it would have made us look surprisingly ridiculous.

Technology sidenote: Not all layout programs actually even have Spellcheck. So we can't always - just usually - blame spellcheck for the things that we send out that are wrong.

So there I was, earlier this week, scrolling through my social media feeds and I came across the following ad: 

Of course, my first instinct was "they need a hyphen" - because "show-stoping" is a compound adjective. (And, well, it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine.)

And then I looked again and thought "What the heck is 'stoping'?"**

I'm usually a live-and-let-live person when it comes to social media. I don't correct people when they typo their status updates. Life is too short. But... well... I may have sent a quick note to the nice folks at Living Social suggesting that they might want to check their image text in future.

After all, they may have figured they were in the clear since there were only 9 words on the ad, but 11% (or 22%, depending on how you count the hyphenation) were wrong, which - finally - makes my point that no job is ever too small that it can't benefit from a proofreader. 

**In case you're wondering, "stoping" is a real word - which puts you at even more of a disadvantage if you rely only on Spellcheck. It has both mining and geological meanings - the former having to do with a large, open space left behind during excavation of ores; the latter having to do with the same type of "space creation" caused while magma moves toward the surface. 

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