Thursday, January 3, 2008

Commonly misused/misspelled words and phrases (Part 1)

I’ve heard an alarming number of aspiring writers express the sentiment that they feel they don’t need to worry about spelling, grammar, and punctuation in their manuscripts because “that’s the editor’s job.” Likewise, if they misuse a word here and there, it’s no big deal. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong attitude. Editors are of the opinion that submitting the cleanest possible manuscript is the writer’s job. And since editors get to decide which stories to print, their opinion prevails. That’s life; adapt or perish.

Why make such a big deal about such trivial-sounding stuff? Simple. Editors tend to be overworked and underpaid. When given the choice between accepting a well-written story that’s full of errors and one that’s relatively clean, they’ll choose the clean one every time because it means less work for them. To put it another way, a story will never be accepted purely because the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are perfect (the story has to be good, too); but stories are rejected all the time because of frequent errors in those areas. This isn’t laziness, but efficiency.

As a writer, I try to make sure I always use words and phrases properly, and I ensure they’re always spelled correctly. I’m constantly amazed at how often I see misspellings and incorrect word usage in other writings. (A good editor should catch them, but an overworked editor might miss some, and what about a blog or newsletter that doesn’t have an editor?)

Working on the assumptions that 1) most people are unaware they’re misspelling or misusing certain words, phrases, abbreviations, and punctuation, and 2) that a conscientious writer would want to know when they’re misusing them, the following are ones I see misused frequently.

Gauntlet vs. gantlet

Wrong: He had to run the gauntlet.
Right: He had to run the gantlet.

This confusion undoubtedly occurred way back when because of the similarity in pronunciation (not to mention the lack of standardization in spelling centuries ago). A gauntlet is a protective glove worn with a suit of armor. It could be made of leather, chain mail, or steel plate. To “throw down the gauntlet” is to challenge someone (akin, in a later era, to slapping someone in the face with a glove). Conversely, to “pick up the gauntlet” is to accept the challenge.

“Running the gantlet” refers to a poor unfortunate who is forced to run through a narrow space lined with people sporting sticks or clubs who beat the victim as he passes. If you really want your heroes to suffer, have them run a gantlet, not a gauntlet.

Wreck vs. wreak

Wrong: If we don’t stop him, he’ll wreck havoc in the village.
Right: If we don’t stop him, he’ll wreak havoc in the village.

This is a simple confusion in pronunciation and spelling. The correct phrase is to “wreak” (meaning inflict) havoc. It rhymes with reek. Godzilla may wreck a town, or wreak havoc there, but not both.

More commonly misused/misspelled words next time.


1 comment:

Skarecrow said...

You are too proudly holding on to an archaic viewpoint. Gauntlet is the preferred choice of words for both usages. I like your viewpoint, but you need to give in to the worldwide accepted POV.