March 6, 2015 / 3 Comments

Moor Vocabulary Mistakes

             Many thanks for your patience.  Hope you enjoyed the photo tips while I was off doing other things.
            Speaking of which, I gave you all the chance to suggest a topic for this week and nobody did.  So you all know what that means…
            It means I’m going to ramble on about spelling and vocabulary again.
            Hey, don’t blame me.
            A few times in the past I’ve talked about how a good working vocabulary is the most basic part of a writer’s tool chest.  But I realized today that’s not really true.  Well, not so much that it isn’t true, but that it’s a poor metaphor.
            A much better way to put is that vocabulary is my raw material.  It’s my concrete.  My brick and mortar.  It’s going to be the foundation of everything I build on the page, supporting all the weight of my clever ideas and images.
            Now, that being said…
            It doesn’t take a lot of construction experience to know the foundation of a structure is very important, and the materials I use to make that foundation is just as important.  I’m willing to bet you’ve probably seen a pothole or two because the contractor who built the road used sand as a base instead of gravel.  The sand’s much cheaper and they work exactly the same… until it rains.  I once saw some fast-cheap condos getting built in San Diego and they were using 1x3s for all the interior walls instead of 2x4s.  It’s all wood, right?
            But those are the easy ones to point out.  Anyone can see the difference between sand and gravel at a glance.  The really dangerous mistakes happen when people can’t tell the difference at all.   Balsa wood could pass for pine from a few feet away, but they hold up very differently under pressure (there’s a reason one gets used for houses and the other gets used for model planes).  Concrete and cement may look similar, but they’re two very different materials and not interchangeable at all.
            Heck, I read a big article once about the science of bricks.  It was a huge advancement when people began to realize the correct ratios and heating time bricks needed.  Bricks went from lumps of dried mud to man-made rocks, and human construction leaped forward—from wattle-and-daub huts to cities and pyramids, just like that.
            If I use the wrong material, or the wrong ratios, it’s a recipe for disaster.  We’re not just talking potholes.  This can be a structural-collapse level problem.  Cracks in foundations.  Walls coming down.  Buildings crumbling.
            As a writer, words are what we use to make our foundations.  They’re what holds everything up.  I can have the most amazing imagery, the most brilliant metaphor, the most mind-blowing plot twist, but if the wards I’m basing it on aren’t spilled rite, or jest the wrong words, no won is gong to rake it seriously.
            See what I mean?  You laughed a little bit at that last sentence, didn’t you?  Maybe not out loud, but it got a reaction from you.  And it wasn’t the reaction the rest of the paragraph was leading you to, was it? The whole point I was trying to make got brushed aside because you were knocked out of the flow of reading and started focusing on the mistakes. 
            And laughing at them.
            I don’t want my amazing imagery blown because I used the wrong word.  I don’t want a reader to skim over my mind-blowing plot twist because I wrote they’re instead of their.  And I really don’t want an editor or agent putting my manuscript in that big pile on the left because my brilliant metaphor on page five is making me look like… well, like I don’t know the raw materials of the trade.
            Of course, part of the problem here is that a lot of writers depend too much on their spellcheckers to do the work for them.  See, I didn’t call those words up above spelling mistakes—they’re all spelled right.  Even in the title.  They’re just all the wrong words.  It’s a case of cement where I needed concrete, and neither the writer nor the spellchecker knew the difference.
            Well, okay, I knew the difference.  I did that to prove a point.  But it’s bothersome how many times I see things like this slip by people.
            In fact, here’s a list of all the things like this I’ve seen slip past people.  The word they used… and the word they meant to use. Some were getting paid for it.  Others thought they should be getting paid.  Or getting paid more.
            Do you know what all of these words mean? 

diffuse vs. defuse – You can only do one with perfume.
knew vs. new – The irony on this one was painful…
bred vs. bread – One of these should not involve children.
break vs. brake – I only want to do one of these with my car.
retch vs. wretch – Only one of these is a poor bastard.
fare vs. fair – The taxi driver only cares about one of these.

instill vs. install – Only robots use both of these for emotions.
drought vs. draught – Only one involves a lack of water.
heroin vs. heroine – Two very different things to be hooked on.
breath vs. breathe – One is a verb, one is a noun.
hoard vs. horde – I can only fit one of these in my house.
cologne vs. colon – I don’t like the smell of one of these.

eminent vs. imminent – The Pope is one of these.
drivel vs. dribble – All these rants only count as one of these.
prosecution vs. persecution – One only happens in court.
prophesy vs. prophecy – Only one gets written down
your vs. you’re – If you get this one wrong, you have to leave.
incite vs. insight – Only one of these is usually granted.

juts vs. just – This is sloppy.  Just sloppy
palate vs. palette – Only one is for food and drink.
palette vs. pallet – Only one is for packaged food and drink
patients vs. patience – Gregory House only had one of these.
healed vs. heeled – One of these can refer to money.

            Full disclosure, I screwed up with one of these (but caught it in my last draft before it went to my editor).  Another one I found in a friend’s proof I was reading for a blurb.  And another was in a self-published book (actually, three of them are from that book).  There’s also a few from some entertainment websites, lengthy blog posts, and other places where people claimed they knew how to use these raw materials.
            Now, I’m not saying your spelling has to be 100% perfect.  To save time, it won’t be.  We all make typos.  When we’re in the zone, we’ve all thought one thing and written another.  But when someone comes across multiple mistakes of this type… well, they start to laugh and shake their head. I know I do.  You just did, too, up above.
            That’s why it’s so very important for a writer to know what words mean and how to spell them.  It’s why I need to take the time to go over my manuscript—me, not my spellchecker—and make sure all the words I’m using are the right ones.
            Because I will never, ever get ahead if the main response people have to my work is to laugh at my inability to use raw materials.
            Next time… I’d like to talk about putting a stop to things.
            Until then, go write.

Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.

This one’s just a quick thought before we all lunge into the holiday season.

Time is a tricky thing in stories. Oh, you’ve got the usual narrative time issues like skipping a few days here or there or going into a flashback, and I’ve prattled on about those a few times. There’s also continuity issues with time. Who knew what and when, was she with him at the same time she was with her, and how did he know that when he hadn’t met her yet–we’ve all dealt with these issues. Well, hopefully you’ve dealt with them…

I wanted to talk about a different aspect of time, though.

Time, and the passage of time in a story, tells us about characters. It gives us an insight when Yakko can shrug off losing a piece of jewelry after a long sigh but Dot is still crying about it two months later. It really tells us something when Wakko can’t remember what he had for breakfast yesterday and Marco can recite every item on the table from breakfast on his fourth birthday. If it takes Bob six months to hit the point where he’ll compromise his morals and Rob breaks after six hours, you know who you want to be trapped in the Andes with. How long something has an effect–or doesn’t have an effect–on someone tells us subtle thing about them that register just as much as any monologue they’re about to spiel out.

I was reading for a screenplay contest recently and came across an example of this in one script. On the off chance the contest entrant is reading this (slim, but let’s be polite), I’m going to tweak a few facts and relate the set-up more than the story. It was just such a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

We begin, as the header tells us, in May of 1999 as a stranger arrives in town. A local woman is mourning the death of her daughter, and she goes to the cemetary to set flowers on the grave. We see on the tombstone that her daughter died just over a month ago, in early April of ’99. That night, when she breaks down in tears over dinner, her husband sighs and tells her she has to get over it and it’s time she moved on.

When we see her in town the next day, most folks she meets are a bit stand-offish to her. Eventually she finds the stranger, they become friends and after another twenty pages or so she confesses how miserable she’s been since her daughter died… just over a year ago.

A quick check confirms both of the dates I’ve already mentioned to you. So which is the mistake? Was “year” supposed to be “month” or was one of the earlier dates wrong? Well, a few pages later she’s talking with a priest and the one year figure comes up again. So the problem was in the earlier dates, apparently.

A harmless typo, you say?

Well, here’s the thing. Her husband came across as kind of a jerk, didn’t he? His own daughter’s dead a month and he’s already telling his wife to move on? It didn’t matter how long she was supposed to be dead. All we have is the words on the page, and those words make us interpret and judge things in a certain way.

Look at this scene when you know it’s a year and suddenly the husband’s a much more sympathetic character. He’s barely recovered from one loss and is dealing with a wife it looks like he might lose to her own grief. Same with those townspeople. They seem a bit cold to ignore a grieving mother, but it’s a bit understandable why many of them might be put off by a woman who’s been grieving for close to thirteen months.

All that messed up in the story because of a single digit.

What this means for us as writers is that we need to be really, really careful with time and dates. They need to be double and triple-checked. Unlike a typoed word, I can’t tell if a date is wrong or not. “Birthday cale” is an easy-to-spot mistake, but “2005” is not.

Y’see, Timmy, the immediate, unconscious timelines those dates and times create are something we can all key into, and we can relate to them (and make judgements off them) almost immediately. They set up certain assumptions and conceptions about characters, and if they’re the wrong ones it can land your script in that big pile on the left.

So, as the Doctor always says, please be careful when you play with time.

Come back next week at our usual bat-time, and you can listen to me prattle on about characters.

Until then, go write. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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.

January 18, 2009 / 1 Comment

The Many Uses of Spam

Does this look familiar to you, my dozen or so semi-faithful readers…?


Hello Dear Freind,

I am sorry to infirm you that your distant uncle has past away while working in the oil fields hear in Angola. However, before his death he has mentioned you many time’s and it is my belief that he would have wanted you named as his primary hair. It may come as an surprise that your uncle was, in fat, a very wealth men at the time of his deaths.

I is a executive managerial from Nigeria who works with the same company as your uncle. I would like very much to send to you your inheritance, which sums to several hundred thousand’s of dollar’s. However, in order to do this, I will be requiring both your primary bank account number’s there in the United State’s and a small sum of money to cover many probate court costs here and therefore expedition the release of you’re funds…


I think most of us have received this email, or some variation of it, once or thrice over… well, probably even just over the past year, yes? If you haven’t seen this before, PayPal ten dollars immediately to the email address given with this blog and I’ll shoot you the rest of it to read at your leisure.

Y’notice what’s interesting, though? You don’t even have to go to the end of the first paragraph before you know this is a waste of your time. In fact, your brain has already made the automatic “waste of time” decision long before this executive managerial mentions money or starts asking for your account numbers, right?

Why? Because it’s written by someone who has only the barest (if any) grasp of the English language. And we all know there’s just a certain point of literacy someone needs to hit in order to be taken seriously.

This is why spelling matters so much to aspiring writers.

Now, a few folks will tell you that the strength of your writing will carry it past such things, and you shouldn’t worry about it. And, to a small degree, they’re right. Are misspelled words fatal? No, of course not. After all, there’s still a decent chance someone could finish a marathon after shooting themselves in each foot, right? Would you really want to bet on the odds of them winning that marathon, though…? I mean, you’d pretty much need to be the Flash to start with if you think you can get shot in the foot and still have a solid chance of winning, right?

If you think about it, spelling and grammar are the strength of your writing. They’re the foundation that holds up everything else. You may have the most brilliant short story, gripping screenplay, or Nobel-prize worthy novel there’s ever been, but if people are losing the flow while they try to decipher your second sentence then this little magnum opus is never going to be read.

This is also, for the record, why writers don’t get downtime. I see lots of folks who think email or message boards don’t count as “real” writing. So they don’t bother with spelling, capitalization, punctuation, or grammar when they’re online. Some try to argue that they don’t treat their manuscripts this way, but again… the “waste of time” decision has probably already been made by people dealing with them.

Now, again, this isn’t meant to make you completely paranoid. There will always be a random typo that slips through, and just because you put it’s instead of its or swapped letters in refrigreator doesn’t mean your work is gong to be tossed in the large pile on the left. Everyone makes a mistake now and then. Heck, one of my friends gleefully plays the part of phantom editor for me and she manages to catch one or two things a week that slip past me while composing these little rants.

If you’ve got a typo on every page though? Or two or three? Especially ones that show you don’t even know what the word means?

If you can’t get past that, you’ll have better luck getting your uncle’s money out of Nigeria.

Next week I’ll blather on about how simple homonyms can outwit your computer with their ayes closed.

Until then, get back to writing.