January 24, 2009

Spill-Chick is Not Prefect

Check it out. New President. New LOST. New rant. Has this been a great week or what?

So, boring as it may seem, I’m going to harp on spelling again. Yeah, two weeks in a row. It’s something that keeps coming up in people’s writing, so I feel the need to keep bringing it up here. Plus, for screenwriters, we’re at the top of contest season, heading into the first batch of deadlines, and in my experience at least half of those folks need to do a major draft to check for spelling errors.

And please note once again—hitting spellcheck does not count as a draft.

In fact, that’s the point I want to stress.

Y’see, Timmy, many would-be writers are soft on spelling, because they’ve got computers. As we all know, computers are godlike, telepathic machines that fix all your mistakes, never make any themselves, and have never, ever tried to wipe out humanity by starting a nuclear war. So, it’s not too surprising several would-be writers have become dependent on this popular deus ex machina.

The catch, of course, is that computers aren’t telepathic and they can’t fix all your mistakes. They’re only going to do what you tell them to do. If you don’t realize what you’ve just asked them to do, well… that’s not their fault, is it?

Let me put it this way. As prefect a sit is, smell-chick doesn’t help yew if ill the warts are spilled write but are all jest then wrong wards, doze itch? Another example of this I’ve given before is–

Inn odor two cell eh vampire yew most half a would steak.

Those past few sentences show one of the biggest problems with becoming dependent on your spellchecker. They’re called malonyms, one of those obscure grammar terms which are the written form of homophones. They’re words that sound like other words, but are spelled differently. If we’re talking about scribbling words, we’re not righting, we’re writing. If I’m carving wood, I want to take the knife to a piece of yew, but hopefully not to you (although if this disregard for spelling keeps up, I won’t make any promises…).

A computer can’t spot a malonym, and will let them through that security checkpoint without a glance (computers don’t profile, either). It hasn’t had any problems with this little rant, for example, even though I’m sure you stumbled over a word or six up above.

Now, there’s also a flipside to this problematic coin, for which I shall tell a little story…

A while back I was reading for a screenplay contest and got a borderline horrible script. What was driving me nuts as I went through it was the inclusion of random words, at least one or two per page. Sometimes they were jarring, other times nonsensical. A dozen or so pages into the story our quasi-hero (the script had other issues, too) encountered a corporeal woman behind the counter at a cafeteria. What? I thought Did I miss something? Is this a ghost story now? I went back and re-read the opening pages again, then read the rest of the scene and the scene after it. Then I read the scene again, trying to make sense of it.

Our writer, it turns out, sucks at spelling. Really, really sucks. Was just throwing letters down that kind of looked like a word he or she had heard before. So said writer typed out the script, spell-checked it, and just hit “okay” whenever the program suggested a spelling.

The problem is, again, these programs don’t know what word the writer intended—they just know what the word on the page was kind of close to. Which is why this writer ended up with a corporeal woman behind a counter (when he wanted a corpulent one), and a man leaning by a plague who was filled with sham (it’s funnier if you figure that one out on your own).

See, this is the real problem. In both of these cases, the spellchecker is working flawlessly. The writer, however, is messing up constantly, because he or she doesn’t know how to spell and doesn’t know what words actually mean. And it’s this vocabulary failure on the part of the writer which is going to make readers (and editors, and producers…) look at the work with less interest and more criticism.

So, let’s do a quick little test. Pencils out, grab the envelope for that power bill you’ve been meaning to pay, and let’s begin…

Chords and Cords – one (and only one) of these words deals with music. Which one?

Very and Vary – one of these words means to change.

Peek, Peak, and Pique one (and only one) of these words means the top.

Dependent and Dependant – one of these words refers to a person.

Here, Heir, and Hear – one of these words refers to a sense.

Its and It’s – one (and only one) of these words is possessive

Their, There, and They’re – one of these words is a location

Trusty and Trustee – one of these words is a title.

Reign, Rein, and Rain – one of these words deals with emperors.

Compliment and Complement – one (and only one) of these words means that things work well together. Like some words do.

So, got all your answers? Are you ready to grade this little test?

Guess what—it doesn’t matter if you picked the right words. It only matters if you knew all the words, what they mean, and how to use them correctly. Every single one of them. Knowing one out of three doesn’t cut it.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of people who will try to convince others (or themselves) that the words you use and how you spell them somehow does not matter in writing. That such pedestrian things should be the very least of your worries. There are also, oddly enough, lots of writers who have never been published, produced, or made the first cut in a contest.

It’s dismissed as coincidence.

Next week I want to talk about the path of least resistance and going with the flow. Although probably not in the way you’re thinking.

Until then, go write.

And spell things correctly so I don’t have to knife yew.

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