Like many translators and other word people, I have a low tolerance for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors in print. Thankfully it’s not just me; when I took a series of editing classes with Alice Levine a couple of years ago, she opened the class with a New Yorker cartoon (you don’t even need the picture to appreciate it) that featured a restaurant guest saying to a waiter, “I’ll have the misspelled Caesar salad and the improperly hyphenated veal osso-buco.” Needless to say, this cartoon provoked gales of laughter from the assembled crowd of editing students. A few people in the class even admitted that they refused to shop at Boulder’s only large-scale mall because of its improperly hyphenated name: Twenty Ninth Street (you’ll find the mall between 28th St. and 30th St., not at #20 9th St as the name would suggest). I’ve made my peace with Twenty Ninth Street, but here are a few habitual spelling and usage errors that drive me crazy.
- It’s instead of its. I recently received a conference announcement from a language industry professional association, proclaiming that this association’s upcoming conference would feature “education at it’s [sic] best.” I had a visceral reaction to this, similar to what I experienced on a recent trip to Ace Hardware (which at least isn’t a language industry entity) when I was confronted with an enormous sign asking, “Can’t find what your [sic] looking for?” Here’s a helpful page that explains the difference between it’s and its.
- Lightening instead of lightning. This one is everywhere too; I recently cringed to find it in a book that had done well enough to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. The lightening/lightning confusion really befuddles me because most people seem to pronounce these words correctly, i.e. “My hair color is too dark, I’m thinking of lightening it,” versus “If you see lightning, run for cover.” I don’t feel like I hear loads of people talking about getting “struck by light-en-ing” when they’re speaking, but for some reason the spelling confusion remains.
- “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less.” I think that many people just say or write this without thinking about the connotation, for example “I could care less what time we get home, I’m not in a rush.”
- Less versus fewer. When my neighborhood supermarket did a major renovation and still didn’t correct their “15 items or less” signs in the express checkout lanes, I seriously considered shopping elsewhere so as not to reward that kind of sloppiness (but proximity won out!). Grammar Girl has a great page of quick and dirty tips on less versus fewer. Nutshell version: fewer is for things you can count, less is for things you can’t. Fewer grammatical errors on signs, less suffering.
I feel so much better now… feel free to add your own most-hated misspellings too! Alot, loose/lose, they’re/their/there, aloud/allowed… it’s OK to vent!