Sunday, September 21, 2008

Finding Common Problems

If you are like me, you commonly switch words like were and where, there and they’re, envelop and envelope. It would be nice if the grammar checker would find all of these mistakes, but it sometimes leaves much to be desired. I won’t tell you about all of my mistakes, since I don’t want you going through my work looking for them, but I will say that I have made quite a few. With some of these mistakes, such as using the word puck instead of puke in my current work in progress, it is nearly impossible to find the mistake unless you just happen to notice it. I don’t know how many times I looked at the word puck and read it as puke. For some reason, I looked at the word this last time through and realized I had used the wrong word.

One of the most effective methods I have found for eliminating word usage errors is to use the find and replace feature. I will search for every instance of a word in the document and verify that the correct word is used. If it is not, I will replace the word with the proper word. The problem with that is how frequently some words are used. In the paragraph above, the word the is used six times. In a novel, we wouldn’t think it unusual to find the word the used over 3,000 times. It would be very difficult for us to look at 3,000 instances of the word the and verify that we meant the and not they or there or some other word.

Simply reading the text can identify many problems, but we are certain to miss many problems. When we read, we read what we expect to see rather than what is on the page. We expect the text to flow and words come to mind that make it flow, even before we see them on the page. One thing that can be helpful is to have the computer read the text rather than reading it ourselves. The computer will read a document word for word, so we may notice if the computer says, “in time for her to puck in the toilet” instead of “in time for her to puke in the toilet.” But it might not help with words that sound similar, such as we’re and were or they’re and there. The more I edit, the more I wonder if perfection is an impossible dream.