Lose the Loose
Road-Bumps of Word-Substitution via Misspelling
  

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

 

August 2012

  
Forty miles of bad road

I read a great deal, and too often tend to notice the little errors of spelling that creep into published writing both formal (books, professional websites) and casual (amateur websites, letters and email, online comments). These are not so much annoying as distracting. Professional writers share a sentiment which I'll formulate thusly: that a writer can carry his readers over a number of bumps and slow-downs, but sooner or later if the road is too rough, the reader will be noticing the road rather than the journey; and if his attention is too jostled, may give up the journey altogether. Writers very rarely want their readers annoyed by mechanical errors in their narrative.

We may label one-half of the problem at hand as misspelling via word-substitution, which is distracting enough; but far bumpier along our roads of meaning is word-substitution via misspelling, which is downright confusing. A simple misspelling, for instance a single letter in a complex word or name, is a very small bump in our mental process and probably causes no trouble at all for our understanding. Say, in a passage about the Byzantine Empire, Constantanople for Constantinople might not even be noticed. But when we read a perfectly good but wrong word, perhaps bazaar for bizarre or vice versa, we may drift into the ditch.

I don't expect all or even most writing to be free of word-usage blunders or typographical errors; certainly mine is not. But I've noticed that there are a lot of frequently recurring misspellings wherein, effectively, one common word is substituted for another. Oddly, it's often the slightly more complex word for the simpler one, as though we sense a confusion and reach too far attempting to resolve it. So in the interests of smoother roads of literacy, I'm offering a few non-mnemonic formulae which probably will aid hardly anyone to remember any of these, especially those who could use assistance; but doing so makes me feel that I'm helping, a little.
  

I repeat that the phrases I've coined below are not mnemonics, because I've always found that my mind could generate false mnemonics as easily as retrieve the original and useful one:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

True. But also:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus sailed the wide blue sea.

And even:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-four, Columbus sailed till he couldn't sail no more.

In fourteen hundred and ninety-five, Columbus sailed till they were barely alive.

I could continue recrossing this trackless sea, but you get the idea. My combination coinages follow.
  

Lose the loose

If not the most common example of misspelling via word-substitution (or word-substitution via misspelling), surely one of the most common is lose acquiring an extra letter; not so much loose losing one. While waves of error-types probably ebb and flow across the trackless sea, this substitution is so frequent in recent years that I worry that the essential differentiation between the two words could be loosely lost.
  

Their fingers type not what they're thinking

This substitution seems one of the most confusing, as readers speeding down the highway of meaning are likely to take a sharply wrong turning, and need to go back and begin anew their source's sentence or even the paragraph, before they're in the ditch.
  

Your thinking is not clearly expressed by the words you're typing

A close relative of the previous word-swap. Present company, and yours truly, of course excepted — if not always accepted.
  

It's folly for print to repent its errors

Possession is nine points of the apostrophe, usually; but however we contract our grip, it's hard to hold each in its right place in the flow of words. Typos under the bridge and into the trackless sea — unless we can correct them in a later printing, or in a dynamic medium.
  

Lightning in the sky does not lighten our burdens

This error is so almost right that it easily causes a flicker of misunderstanding. As Mark Twain says,

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888
Directory of Mark Twain's maxims, quotations, and various opinions: Lightning
  
Be discreet about each discrete speling confusion

This misuse occurs in contexts that suggest to me that the writer is not aware of the secret of these two distinct words.
  

Breathe not your last breath with a misspelling

This error occurs with such breathless readiness that I suspect it is a simple confusion of the meanings of the two common words. Pause, breathe deeply (or take a deep breath), and choose aright.
  

In occlusion

Automatic spelling-checkers won't catch a misspelling via word-substitution, so it's up to use to type them write the first thyme, or spare a few mementoes to glaze over our writhings before their shared to the weald.

  

© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
The first subtitle above derives from
"Forty Miles of Bad Road",
the 1959 instrumental hit song by Duane Eddy:
with conveyance by elephant.

Sometimes a writer makes play with such word-swappage,
or is inspired by it; for instance "Bazaar of the Bizarre"
a 1963 fantasy novelet by Fritz Leiber in his
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.
  

  
H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926)
remains an amusing and instructive guidebook;
as does the grand Oxford English Dictionary

The Free Dictionary
is a handy online reference.

WordPoints at Troynovant
reading & writing, editing & publishing
  


  

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