Summertime and the living is easy. Too easy. How tempting is it to kick back and let our machines do our proofreading? A fabulous Mental Floss t-shirt sparked memories of Jillian Madison's classic
Damn You, Autocorrect! and a meditation on the importance of proofreading.
That's human proofreading, not "spell czech" proofreading. Becuase when we let our computers check our spelling, they can make sure we spell a word correctly, but they can't make sure we are spelling the correct word.
Readers of these posts know that much of the time when someone complains about grammar mistakes they are really complaining about a writer using the wrong word: either words that are spelled the same but have different meanings (they're/their/there) or words that are close in spelling and are often mistakenly used for one another (affect/effect, insure/ensure).
Understanding and remarking on those sorts of distinctions is often derisively labeled "geek" knowledge. I find that unfortunate. Precision in word use isn't necessarily prescriptive or persnickety, and sloppiness isn't necessarily friendlier. A friend of mine showed me this goofy Mental Floss t-shirt, a wonderful reminder of the silly things that can happen when we pretend that paying attention to so-called geeky things like homonyms doesn't matter:
The shirt reminded me not only of the fabulousness of Mental Floss and their books, but also of how correct spelling is still only the tiniest part of correct grammar and clear communication.
And that made me think of Autocorrect, that little bit of programming in smartphones that makes sure that nothing we type is spelled wrong, but often makes what we type very wrong indeed. Jillian Madison's Damn You, Autocorrect is filled with crazy text messages from one phone to another in which "condom" replaces "din din," "going to divorce" replaces "going to Disney," and worse. Much of the humor comes from double entendres or just straightforward sexual references that pop up in general conversations where they don't belong. The book is based on a website; both are hilarious. All too often the messages were actually sent with a flick of a finger before the sender actually proofread them for errors.
Proofreading for good grammar and correct meaning is much more than spell checking. Proofreading our writing requires awareness of context, awareness of frequently misused and confused words, and precise attention. Smart programming can be precise and attentive, check for context via surrounding word use, and sometimes distinguish between homonyms, but as yet, it can't do any of those things quite as well as smart humans can.
But it can certainly entertain us! Keep an eye on your smartphone and enjoy the summerthyme.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.
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